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China on track for $31 billion in U.S. ag imports over 12 months

While China may not meet the first-year target under the “phase one” trade agreement, it is buying huge amounts of U.S. food, agriculture, and seafood products that could total $31 billion over 12 months, said Iowa State economist Wendong Zhang at a farm conference on Thursday. Neither Zhang nor Ohio State professor Ian Sheldon said they expected the Biden administration to roll back U.S. tariffs on China in the near term.

The “phase one” agreement, signed in mid-January, obliged China to import $36.6 billion worth of U.S. food and ag products this year. Shipments totaled $12.9 billion from the start of this year through September, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ “phase one tracker.” China was a large and frequent purchaser of soybeans and pork in late summer and early fall, so there was some hope in the Farm Belt of getting closer to the original target.

Speaking at an agricultural conference sponsored by Ohio State University, Zhang said, “Both countries are trying to make this work.” If imports are counted since the trade agreement took effect in mid-February, “what we are forecasting is China will buy $31 billion” in the following 12 months, he said. The forecast included $11 billion worth of soybeans, $2.7 billion of pork, $1.8 billion of cotton, and $1.5 billion of corn.

Zhang and two associates at Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development said that as early as Friday, they would post a 34-page policy brief, explaining their estimate, on the internet. Their forecast is based on seasonal flows of major U.S. commodities to China. Soybeans are shipped mostly during the fall and winter, so the coming months could see large increases in the import totals.

Phase one is based on the calendar year, said former USDA chief economist Joe Glauber, so “the clock started in January.” It will be difficult, he said, for China to satisfy the import target in that time span. “Maybe” it could tally $31 billion in a 12-month period, Glauber said.

“I just want to lower expectations of how a Biden administration might radically change the U.S.-China agricultural relations,” said Zhang. “Largely, both nations actually think that we will likely see bumpy relations politically between these two countries, regardless of who is in the White House.” The pandemic or climate change may take priority over trade in the early months of the new administration, and the United States is likely to seek allies in confronting China, he said. “But we may not see a huge and quick tariff rollback … once we enter a new era.”

Sheldon said he expected that the new administration would seek a coalition “to try to set trade rules and to isolate China,” focusing particularly on intellectual property theft, forced transfer, and the use of subsidies. In other words, nothing different from what the current administration has been doing.

“What I think is a bit different is you’ll see the administration focus more on support of reforms to WTO rules, and the United States may well be seeking leadership in setting those trade rules,” said Sheldon, who specializes in trade.

U.S. farm exports to China peaked at $25.9 billion during 2012 and have trended downward since. More recently, before the trade war, they averaged about $20 billion a year.

Phase one may allow some “rebalancing” of U.S. food and ag sales to China, said Zhang. There are “huge opportunities” for Chinese companies to diversify into purchases of meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables beyond the row crops that are the major items now, he said.

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