Fearing Trade War, Some US Farmers Worry About Trump Tariffs

Randy Poskin, a soybean farmer in rural Illinois, voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But ask him now he feels about that decision, and you get a tepid response.

“I’m not sure,” Poskin said.

Like many farmers in the Midwest, Poskin is concerned about getting caught in the middle of a trade war, as Trump ramps up economic pressure on China.

Those fears were heightened after Trump announced plans Thursday to impose tariffs on as much as $60 billion worth of Chinese imports.

“I’m fearful they will retaliate on those tariffs,” Poskin said. “Soybean exports, wheat, poultry, chicken, beef — [there are] any number of products that we export to their country that they could retaliate with.”

The announcement has unnerved many in Trump’s base of supporters in U.S. agriculture. The trade tensions have also rattled global markets, which until recently had performed strongly.

Intellectual property theft

Trump’s tariff decision was meant to punish Chinese companies that benefit from unfair access to U.S. technology.

U.S. businesses have long bristled at Beijing’s requirement that they transfer technology to Chinese companies as a condition of entering the Chinese market. U.S. businesses have also had their technology stolen through cyberattacks.

“We have a tremendous intellectual property theft situation going on,” Trump said during the signing ceremony Thursday.

Some U.S. companies in China cheered the move and suggested that concerns about a trade war were overblown.

William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, dismissed the “hair on fire” concern that Trump’s proposed moves would hurt the global economy.

“That the U.S. is willing to risk these disruptions indicates how serious the U.S. administration finds China’s forced technology transfer, cybertheft and discriminatory industrial policies,” he said in a statement to VOA.

Zarit pointed to a recent survey suggesting members of his organization wanted the White House to “advocate more strongly for a level playing field and for reciprocal treatment to improve market access” in China.

But it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s words will translate into that kind of action. That’s in part because the president’s move on Thursday did not actually implement tariffs.

Delayed move

Instead, Trump gave the U.S. trade representative 15 days to identify specific Chinese goods that will be subject to the penalties. There will then be a 30-day window for public comment. That means any move is at least 45 days away.

Trump took a similar approach to steel and aluminum tariffs earlier this month. Although the White House initially leaked news that there would be a universal tax on all steel and aluminum imports, at least six countries and the European Union have since received exemptions.

“You have announcements with a lot of big, very aggressive, very dramatic rhetoric, but when it comes time to actually implement the policy, it’s much more toned down, much more in line with historical U.S. trade enforcement policy,” said Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution.

Such a negotiating tactic often gets Trump the “tough on trade” headlines that he desires, even while reducing the immediate risk of starting a trade war.

But there are still uncertainties. For instance, it still isn’t clear how China will respond to Trump’s protectionist measures.

China’s response

On Friday, China blasted Trump’s move but did little in the way of countermeasures.

“If somebody imposes a trade war on China, we’ll fight to the end,” Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, said on state TV.

China also released a list of potential tariffs on $3 billion worth of U.S. goods, including pork, fruit, wine, steel pipes and other products.

“China responded strong verbally but soft in actual countermeasures,” said Allan Von Mehren, a China analyst at the Copenhagen-based Danske Bank.

“This is a very measured reaction, as $3 billion is a drop in the ocean out of the $131 billion the U.S. exports to China every year,” he said.

However, China has signaled it may impose more significant measures should Trump follow through with his tariffs.

Should China retaliate further, a prime target is soybean farmers like Poskin, who are uniquely vulnerable to Chinese retaliation.

One in every three rows of U.S. soybeans is exported to China, according to the American Soybean Association.

That vulnerability is leaving Poskin to wonder whether he did the right thing in supporting Trump.

“I mean, I do like the regulation side of things, the way he’s backing things off,” Poskin said. “But just the same, these areas of trade are very important to agriculture. We can’t interrupt this.”

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