Ask any American soybean farmer about current market conditions and US-China trade frictions will bubble up in the conversation. After the late June meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in Osaka, Trump assured American farmers that trade talks would resume and that China would buy a tremendous amount of food and agricultural products very soon. Yet, in the month since, no significant purchases have been announced and no information is publicly available on large purchases in the offing, especially now, as the trade-war escalated again with the new 10-percent tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese imports announced by the US president.

  • China halted purchases of US soybeans a year ago as a retaliatory measure to the tariffs the US imposed in early 2018, a key move in the early days of the current US-China trade war.
  • During the last year, China has intermittently stopped and started purchases of soybeans, a simple, painful lever in the ongoing trade row. The most recent significant soybean purchases were 544,000 tonnes in June—settled in the days prior to the Osaka meeting—and 2.6 million tonnes in February, following the initial 90-day suspension of retaliatory trade measures.

In the decade leading up to the current trade tensions with China, China was the second-largest US agricultural export market to the tune of $21.6 billion per year. As the trade war has grown and domestic agricultural policies have shifted China’s agricultural import demands, US farmers have increasingly been pushed to bid out to new buyers in new markets with the hope that market preferences and demand will align in their favor while also keeping a foot in the door of China’s market.

  • Despite the sharp decrease in China's soybean imports from the US (down 74% in 2018), China remains the top US soybean export market, accounting for over 18 percent of total US soybean exports.
  • In 2018, China has also decreased dramatically the volume of US grains it imports. American wheat exports to China have historically been relatively small as is, so the trade friction coupled with Beijing’s efforts to support better-quality domestic wheat product will only further diminish opportunities for US wheat producers in China.
  • Agriculture of course also encompasses animal products, and here we see a glimmer of hope for US producers. China, which typically accounts for half of the world's pork production, has made several large purchases from the US this year despite a 50 percent tariff in order to offset supply disruptions from Africa where swine fever has devastated household farms and exports.

What’s next? The next US presidential elections loom. President Trump has a political stake in easing the pain his administration's trade policies have imposed on the US agriculture industry. Trump has already announced $16 billion in aid is on the table for qualifying farmers. He’s also walking back his trade conflicts with China in other industries, including easing restrictions on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

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