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Lawmakers From High-Export Areas Mum on China Tariffs

White House blames Beijing as one pork state Dem says 'Trump isn’t cutting it'

U.S. and Chinese flags on a table where military leaders from the two countries met in 2014. Four year later, the economic giants are in the midst of a bitter trade dispute. Depsite President Trump’s tariff's little progress has been made, an official said Friday. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle)
U.S. and Chinese flags on a table where military leaders from the two countries met in 2014. Four year later, the economic giants are in the midst of a bitter trade dispute. Depsite President Trump’s tariff's little progress has been made, an official said Friday. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle)

Lawmakers in states and districts most likely to be affected by the Chinese tariffs on an array of American products from pork to wine to fruits and nuts were noticeably mum Monday on Beijing’s retaliation against the Trump administration’s trade actions.

The Chinese government was unhappy when President Donald Trump decided to impose import penalties of 25 percent on most steel and 10 percent on aluminum coming into the United States. Beijing hit back Monday with $3 billion worth of tariffs on nearly 130 American goods — but members had very little to say about the latest skirmish in the trade brouhaha.

China imposed 25 percent tariffs on eight products including pork and aluminum scrap and 15 percent tariffs on products such as wine, fruits, dried coconut, stainless steel pipes and even American ginseng produced in areas such as West Virginia. Fruits, nuts and pork products constitute the majority of the 128 products China singled out for higher tariffs.

Roll Call contacted nearly 20 House and Senate offices that represent areas that are big exporters of agricultural output like pork. One Democratic lawmaker commented about Trump’s trade initiatives amid fears from even Republicans that his steel and aluminum tariffs have triggered a global trade war.

“This is yet another example of a president who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the consequences of his rash foreign policy actions,” Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who represents one major U.S. pork producing county and is running for governor, said in a statement to Roll Call. “We need someone in the Oval Office who is going to put the interests of America’s farmers and the working-class over their own self-interest. President Trump isn’t cutting it.”

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The United States shipped $21 billion in agricultural goods to China in 2016, making it the country’s second-largest export market for those items, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Soybeans topped that category at $1 billion, with pork and related products close behind at $713 million.

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Trade tensions between Washington and Beijing are expected to rise later this week when the USTR publishes a proposed list of up to 1,300 Chinese imports that could be subject to additional tariffs of 25 percent.  

Trump and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer say the tariffs are warranted after a review by Lighthizer’s agency confirmed accusations by U.S. businesses that China forces them to share technology with Chinese companies as a requirement for doing business in Beijing and does not protect their intellectual property rights.  

The president spent his morning not explaining how the rural districts, many in conservative Midwestern and Southern enclaves that he carried in 2016, will deal with Beijing’s counterpunch. Rather, he fired off a number of tweets blasting Mexico and congressional Democrats for what he describes as America’s immigration woes, calling for long-shot legislation to seal the U.S.-Mexico border, and lashing out at CNN and NBC for their coverage of his presidency.

White House aides also had little to say on the matter. When asked directly about China’s retaliatory tariffs, a spokeswoman instead slammed the country’s trade tactics that prompted Trump’s steel and aluminum penalties.

“China’s subsidization and continued overcapacity is the root cause of the steel crises [sic],” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “Instead of targeting fairly traded U.S. exports, China needs to stop its unfair trading practices which are harming U.S national security and distorting global markets.”

The Chinese government, however, contends Trump’s tariffs are unfair.

“We hope that the United States will rescind its measures that violate World Trade Organization rules as quickly as possible,” China’s Ministry of Commerce said in a statement. “China and the United States are the world’s two biggest economies, and cooperation is the only correct choice. Both sides should use dialogue and consultation to resolve their mutual concerns.”

Among the states that likely will be hit hardest by Beijing’s tariffs are Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana, according to the Agriculture Department. Each of those states, along with others like North Carolina and Oklahoma, are leading pork producers. Midwestern states could feel further pain if if soybeans are targeted in further action by China.

The offices of senators such as Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin and fellow Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth did not respond to a request for comment on China’s retaliation. Nor did a spokesperson for North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr.

A spokesperson for North Carolina’s other GOP senator, Thom Tillis, said the senator “understands the need to promote fair and reciprocal trade.”

“However, he also believes our policies must take into account the potential for unintended consequences, including retaliatory actions,” the spokesperson said. “Market access is key to the health of America’s agriculture industry, and tariffs aimed at America’s farmers and ranchers are concerning.”

Walz’s eagerness to comment is largely explained by reviewing USDA data. Martin County, near the heart of his district, straddles Minnesota’s border with agriculture-rich Iowa and ranked sixth among all pork-producing counties in the United States in 2016, according to statistics compiled for the 2012 census.

The county broke heavily for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. That single county embodies what experts and some lawmakers have called the paradox of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs — and the kind of expected retaliation the Chinese government handed down Monday: A trade war would hit his supports in rural and blue-collar areas hardest.

Iowa counties compose a hefty portion of the USDA’s top 100 pork-producing U.S. counties. But press aides for longtime Sen. Charles E. Grassley and first-term Sen. Joni Ernst, both Republicans, did not provide a reaction to Beijing’s move.

Many congressional Republican lawmakers often choose to go dark rather than offend Trump over his policies — largely because he continues to poll strongly in red districts and states.

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Fear of trade war

Agricultural groups hit by China tariffs still think there’s time for the U.S. to negotiate a settlement that keeps the trade skirmish from escalating.

“My hope is we will see both countries ratchet down the tensions and engage in negotiations,” said Dennis Nuxoll, federal affairs vice president for Western Growers, an organization for farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico. Nuxoll said agriculture is expected to be caught in a crossfire between Beijing and Washington because farm goods are often targeted in trade disputes between countries.

The USTR said in the 2018 National Trade Estimate Report that “China is the largest agricultural export market for the United States, with more than $20 billion in U.S. agricultural exports in 2017,” down from $21 billion in 2016.

“We are disappointed that China has placed an additional 25 percent tariff on U.S. pork exports,” National Pork Producers Council CEO Neil Dierks said in a statement. “China was the third largest value market, with more than $1 billion in U.S. pork being shipped there last year.”

Dierks said negotiations between the United States and South Korea overcame tensions that appeared to threaten the continuance of the South Korea-U.S. trade pact. “We are pleased that the U.S and Korea were able to reach an agreement that has not prejudiced U.S. pork producers or other sectors of U.S. agriculture. We recognize that the U.S. and China are negotiating, and we are hopeful that the 25 percent tariffs on U.S. pork will be short lived,” he said.

Monday that China’s retaliation might signal a trade war is coming.

The Chinese tariffs “could be the calm before the storm,” warned Farmers for Free Trade co-chairman Max Baucus, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Montana Democratic senator. He said trade tensions could escalate if the Trump administration slaps tariffs on selected Chinese imports in response to Beijing’s intellectual property violations.

North Dakota GOP Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement that the Chinese tariffs worry him and that he “will continue to stress to the Administration that any changes to our trade policy need to result in better deals for the U.S. and prevent any additional retaliatory measures that harm North Dakota industries, particularly agriculture and energy.”

Correction 5:24 p.m. | An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the Chinese government had imposed tariffs on soybeans. 

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