USDA Secretary: ‘Ball is in China’s court’ on trade war

USDA Secretary: ‘Ball is in China’s court’ on trade war

Written by: Wesley Brown
Published by: Talk Business & Politics

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Wednesday (Sept. 4) defended President Donald Trump’s handling of the administration’s ongoing trade war with China, saying the Far East country has “cheated on the scales.” He also encouraged Arkansas farmers and ranchers to hold out for a better deal.

“That’s what the president has called out China for doing,” Perdue said during his third visit to Central Arkansas as USDA Secretary. “You cannot build a world economy on taking things from someone else and not compensating them.”

Purdue, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson at his side, spoke with reporters for about 10 minutes following an hourlong town hall meeting at the state Department of Agriculture headquarters in west Little Rock. In response to questions from Talk Business & Politics concerning President Trump’s call on Aug. 23 for American businesses to withdraw operations from China after threatening new tariffs that add up to $550 billion, Perdue said “the ball is actually in China’s court.”

“They build their economy on the innovations, creativity and inventions of American people …. And the president is the first one to say ‘No.’ If you want to trade, we’re going to have a free, fair playing field,” said Perdue, a Georgia farmer. “We would like to have China as a customer, but they have to reform some things in their country for them to understand that the way governments trade (they) have to play by the same rules. And rules can’t apply to one and not the other.”

Similarly, Perdue also said approval of the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact (USMCA) is now in the hands of Democrats in Congress. He said the new $1.2 trillion USMCA trilateral trade deal to replace the longstanding North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will further bolster the U.S. farming economy.

“As I say, chapter by chapter, line by line, and verse by verse, this USMCA agreement is a much-improved agreement,” said Perdue. “Speaker Pelosi, the ball is in her court and understandably, she would want a good vote out of her caucus on the USCMA.

“My hope is that we can do it very quickly, in September or October. This is as important a trade deal and it does not need to get caught up in presidential politics,” Perdue continued. “All it would take is for one of the presidential candidates to kind of bad mouth the USMCA and everybody flees.”

After hearing Perdue’s comment, Hutchinson reiterated his earlier remarks nearly two weeks ago that he supports the Trump administration’s tough stance on trade with China but has reservations about the possible long-term impact.

“I think there are some principles involved. We know that it hurts our farmers and I am concerned that this could be a long-term sequence that we are in,” said Hutchinson as Perdue listened. “But to the Secretary’s point, the ‘ball is in China’s court.’”

Earlier, Hutchinson, Perdue, and Forestry Service Chief Vicki Christiansen signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Shared Stewardship that establishes a framework for the state of Arkansas and USDA agencies to work closer together on common interests, especially as it relates to investment decisions on forest practices.

“Today more than half of Arkansas’ public and private land is covered in forest, creating a rich ecosystem that supports our communities, watersheds, and economy,” said Hutchinson said during the signing ceremony. “I am confident that this agreement with the USDA’s Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service is an important step to further support, protect, and preserve Arkansas’ most valuable resources.”

“This is an important next step in our land-management efforts with the State of Arkansas,” said Perdue. “USDA looks forward to working closely with the state to improve health and conditions on both public and private lands.”

A year ago, the USDA Forest Service announced the new strategy of shared stewardship after the release of an agency report that outlined plans to work more closely with states to identify landscape-scale priorities for targeted practices in areas with the highest forest health opportunities.

Before signing the pact with Gov. Hutchinson, Perdue spent nearly 45 minutes answering more than a dozen questions and hearing comments from more than 150 Arkansas farmers and agriculture industry trade group representatives on everything from trade and crop insurance to disaster funding, levee breaches and flooding.

However, unlike recent events in Minnesota where the USDA Secretary has faced angry farmers upset about ongoing trade disruptions that have pushed many into bankruptcy, the standing-room only crowd at the state Department of Agriculture headquarters were mostly complimentary of the USDA chief and the Trump administration.

During one poignant exchange with Perdue, however, Arkansas Farm Bureau Randy Veach did appeal to Perdue to push the administration to quickly resolve ongoing trade and tariff issues that impact agriculture.

He also thanked Perdue for extending the deadline in January for the USDA’s Market Facilitation Program, which provides subsidy payments to farmers in Arkansas across the U.S. to offset losses impacting agricultural producers affected by the Trump administration’s trade and tariff policies, especially those doing business with China. Initially, $12 billion in funding was allocated for the program in late 2018.

“Pretty much most of our commodity prices are below breakeven right now and it’s going to take a lot of help to get that where we can,” Veach explained. “The Market Facilitation Program, we certainly appreciate those and we really want those to continue on to give all those out to our farmers and ranchers.

“The situation, Mr. Secretary, and I’ve seen it before in the earlier 1980’s and we are at it again, is that we can lose many of our multi-generational family farmers,” Veach continued. “And that’s serious. We can’t afford to do that in Arkansas and we can’t afford that to happen across our nation either. But we certainly appreciate what you’re doing.”

In response, Perdue told Veach that the USDA needed the help of the Farm Bureau and other industry groups in getting the word out concerning safety net programs to assist farmers and ranchers on trade, disaster relief, conservation and other emergency situations. He added that the federal agency is having problems staffing the 51 state and 2,124 county Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices across the U.S., which implement farm programs and provide disaster assistance and farm loans to farmers and ranchers.

“We’ve got a hiring plan that will fully fund and (staff) these areas …, but it is stretched and we are working pretty hard in that regard,” Perdue said of the nation’s tight job market at 3.7% unemployment rate. “We authorized our plan 18 months ago, but it is just frustrating how difficult it is in the federal environment to onboard the right kind of people who can service our customers out there.”

After shaking hands with dozens of farmers, ranchers and industry trade officials attending the meeting, Perdue took pictures with state Agriculture Department employees before heading back to Washington, D.C. Arkansas Republican Congressmen French Hill, Bruce Westerman and Rick Crawford also attended the town hall meeting.

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