As China buys U.S. corn, Trump has ‘many other things in mind’ than trade talks

President Trump declared Sino-U.S. relations “severely damaged” and said he has “many other things in mind” beyond following up on the interim agreement that de-escalated the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Trump spoke dismissively of new negotiations with China on Friday, hours after exporters reported the largest sale of U.S. corn to China in 26 years.

In the six months since signing the “phase one” agreement on Jan. 15, Trump has alternated between enthusiasm at the prospect of massive sales of U.S. goods and services to China and criticism of Chinese activities. On May 15, for example, he said, “Somehow, I lost a little flavor for it [the trade deal].” And on June 18, following reports that he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy U.S. farm exports to help him win re-election, Trump said on social media, “[P]erhaps I didn’t make myself clear, but the U.S. certainly does maintain a policy option, under various conditions, of a complete decoupling from China.”

However, the phase one agreement is one of Trump’s signature achievements on trade, along with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA. Trade representative Robert Lighthizer told senators in mid-June that he believed China would meet its commitments to buy $36.6 billion of U.S. food, agricultural, and seafood products this year.

Asked about the possibility of a “phase two” agreement, to further resolve complaints of unfair Chinese trade practices, Trump responded on Friday, “I don’t think about it now.” The president blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic and said the “relationship with China has been severely damaged.” When reporters traveling with the president asked again about phase two, Trump replied, “Honestly, I have many other things in mind.”

Hours earlier, the USDA said exporters sold 1.365 million tonnes of corn, worth $456 million, and 320,000 tonnes of wheat, worth $63 million, for delivery to China in coming months. It was the largest corn sale to China since 1.45 million tonnes on Dec. 20, 1994. Some 765,000 tonnes were sold for delivery in the corn marketing year that ends Aug. 31, with the remainder to follow during the 2020/21 market  year.

Claire Reade, a former China trade negotiator, cautioned against reading too much into a “stray comment by Trump,” reported the South China Morning Post. “It also has seemed that the president has been much more focused on trade balances and selling U.S. goods to China than he has been on the structural distortions created by China’s industrial policies — and those distortions would be the core of any phase two deal,” said Reade.

Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times newspaper, advised Trump on social media against damaging ties between the nations. “Don’t squeeze out Chinese students, block young Americans from using TikTok or undermining bilateral business ties. Decoupling from China isn’t in the interest of American people. Remember this and it will help in your reelection,” said Hu, who is believed to be familiar with the thinking of Chinese leaders.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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