In Little Rock, Sonny Perdue Says Ball in China's Court on Trade

In Little Rock, Sonny Perdue Says Ball in China's Court on Trade
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (seated) shake hands and pose for photographs in Little Rock. U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman, French Hill, Rick Crawford and others look on. (Sarah Campbell-Miller)

"Farmers will wait as long as it takes" for a good trade deal with China, "and we'll find other markets, frankly," if a deal isn't reached, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said during a visit to Little Rock on Wednesday.

Perdue was in town to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding forestry and conservation issues at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, but also answered questions about the U.S. trade dispute with China.

"The ball is actually in China's court," Perdue said. He was joined by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, among other state leaders and elected officials.

"How long should farmers wait? Farmers are farmers," Perdue said. "They're going to do what they do. What they do best is produce. And that's why, while the president has been very generous in directing me to use the market facilitation program, there's not a single farmer in America that'd rather not have a good crop at a fair price and a government check.

"They're going to wait as long as it takes because farmers are also hard-working people who want to deal with honest people. They want to deal with people that they can deal with."

Perdue's comments came the day before China announced that its trade representatives would fly to Washington in October to resume trade talks. Mid-level discussions are set to begin this month in preparation for the visit. The announcement came days after another round of tariffs on Chinese and American goods took effect.

Perdue said China built its economy on American innovation by forcing technology and intellectual property transfer and ignoring both IP and copyright laws. President Donald Trump was the first to demand a "free, fair playing field," he said.

"If China decides they will not and do not want to reform their practices regarding free and fair and reciprocal trade, our farmers will find someplace else to go sell their product," he said.

That someplace else could be Japan, the U.K. and numerous small markets, he said. The USDA is also looking into markets including Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.

"I think, from a business perspective, it'd be better to have a variety of smaller customers than one large customer you get dependent on," he said. "That's really what we're trying to develop."

To those who say it took years to develop the massive China market, Perdue said that China simply got hungry and the U.S. was happy to supply it with pork when there was demand. He acknowledged, though, that some markets have been difficult to break into because the countries protect their own farmers.

"The United States of America is still a superpower of food," Perdue said. "If these countries didn't try to protect their own growers internally, the U.S. farmer would just overwhelm them, and we understand that."

Perdue was also asked about the African swine fever outbreak in China, which is wiping out hog populations. He said the outbreak could benefit U.S. companies by raising pork prices. But the downside would be that, as China loses hogs to the disease, it won't need to buy feed from the U.S.

Hutchinson praised the Trump administration's stand on China.

"I am grateful for the difference this administration has made in taking a very strong stand for more fair trade and transparency in trade, particularly with China," he said. "There are some principles involved. We know that it hurts our farmers, and I am concerned this could be a long-term sequence that we're in. … I hope [China] comes back, and I hope we can make a fair arrangement with them."

Hutchinson also said it's important for the agriculture industry that the country returns to having low or no tariffs.

Perdue was also asked about the pending United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement agreement. He called it an improvement from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which it is designed to replace.

"It's modernized in the fact of using and addressing biotechnology issues and digital commerce issues and other things, as well as opening Canada's very tight dairy market to U.S. producers," Perdue said. "There were other things that Canada gave up on, [for example] a very unfair wheat trading issue."

The agreement requires congressional approval. He said the ball is in U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's court, facing what he called minor objections. He said the deal doesn't need to get "caught up in presidential politics."

"And the world is watching," he added. "If we cannot trade with our nearest neighbors to the north and south, other people across the world will wonder how in the world they can trade with us."

Forestry Deal

The memorandum of understanding signed by Perdue and Hutchinson deals with forestry and conservation, establishing a framework for state and federal agencies to work more closely together to accomplish mutual goals and respond to ecological challenges and natural resource concerns in Arkansas.

"Essentially what that means, in conservation and forestry, is to really work together as good neighbors just like we would fence to fence if we lived next to one another," Perdue said. "… It's important that we work to preserve, whether it's private land, state land or federal land, all of us together."

A key component of the shared-stewardship strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest practices to protect communities and create resilient forests and landscapes.

The state agencies participating in the shared-stewardship strategy are the Arkansas Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The federal participating agencies are the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

It is the first such agreement in the southern U.S. and is the first in the nation to include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.