Saturday, December 21, 2019

What China Said about Phase I and Ag Products

China's reporting on the Phase I trade agreement's agricultural purchases from the United States has been limited to comments at a December 13 press conference made by Vice Minister of Agriculture Han Jun and other officials.

The 11-pm press conference featured sub-cabinet officials: the deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission and vice ministers of commerce, finance, and agriculture. Officials emphasized that negotiations with the United States were based on principles of equality and mutual respect. They revealed that the agreement includes chapters addressing intellectual property rights, technology transfer, food and agricultural products, financial services, exchange rates and transparency, trade expansion, bilateral assessments, and dispute settlement. They told journalists that the text of the agreement will be released after completion of legal reviews and translation checks, and a time, place and other arrangements for signing the agreement would be determined later. They said negotiations at the working level continue and a phase II agreement depends on implementation of phase I.

The officials said nothing concrete about tariffs, only that both parties committed to withhold the tariff increases that had been scheduled for December 15 and this would be a transition from raising tariffs to lowering them. A question from Reuters--the only one not from State media outlets--about waiving 50-percent tariffs on agricultural products did not receive a direct answer.

According to NDRC Deputy Ning Jizhe, the in-depth discussions by China and the U.S. resulted in an agreement that is beneficial for resource allocation and structural adjustment in both countries. Vice Minister of Commerce and Deputy Trade Negotiator Wang Shouwen said the agreement will strengthen intellectual property right protections, improve the business environment, expand market access, and give stronger protection of legal rights for all companies operating in China, including foreign enterprises.

Ning Jizhe said China would greatly increase purchases of high-quality and market-competitive agricultural products from the U.S., but the details would not be announced until the agreement is released. Ning's references to "quality" and "market-competitive" were probably inserted to fend off challenges from other trade partners.

Vice Minister of Agriculture Han Jun gave a rundown of the agriculture part of the agreement in a 7-minute response (T.V. video and text here) to a question about whether China's agreement to import more U.S. agricultural products would harm Chinese industry. Han's remarks emphasized that China did not give up ground in the negotiations on agriculture. He reminded listeners of China's growing need for food imports, emphasized benefits for Chinese agricultural exporters, and insisted that imports would not harm Chinese farmers nor threaten "food security" objectives. Han began and ended his remarks with assurances that negotiations with the U.S. were conducted on principles of equality, mutual benefits, and "win-win cooperation," an oblique way of saying that negotiators did not sacrifice China's farmers to get an agreement with the Americans.

Vice Minister Han emphasized that Chinese negotiators had "fought to achieve actual benefits" by expanding market access for Chinese agricultural exports. Han cited the U.S. announcement that it would finalize rules to open its market to Chinese cooked chicken products and catfish as a beneficial result, noting that China is one of only three countries allowed to export catfish to the United States. Han said the United States will also announce procedures for importing Chinese fragrant pears, citrus, and dates, and the U.S. agreed to resolve the automatic detention of Chinese fish and shellfish products as soon as possible. Han described these a "breakthroughs" in solving decade-old problems.

Han said "there is no doubt" China will substantially increase its imports of U.S. agricultural products after the agreement is implemented. He recited figures showing rapid growth in China's ag imports, noted the complementarities between the U.S. and Chinese economies, and insisted that these imports will fill deficits in supply and demand and do not pose a threat to Chinese farmers.

Han gave soybeans as an example, saying China's imports account for 85 percent of China's soybean supply and estimated the import volume at "around 90 million tons" this year. Han said China will expand imports of some U.S. agricultural products that are "urgently needed to stabilize markets" in China, such as pork and poultry. He cited China's recent lifting of its ban on U.S. poultry imports. "Undoubtedly," Han said, "these imports will not put pressure on Chinese agriculture."

Han said China could import some wheat, corn, and rice from the United States after the phase I deal is implemented, but he was quick to point out that the volume of these imports would be "very limited" by tariff rate quotas. Han said imports of wheat, corn and rice would be moderate volumes that fill shortfalls in China's supply and demand. Han was quick to pledge that "national food security" would be the bottom line, insisting China would maintain its goal of basic self-sufficiency in grains and "keep the Chinese peoples' food bowls tightly in their own hands."

Han praised the agreement for addressing long-standing issues in agriculture and expressed optimism that it would lay a foundation for solving additional issues. Vice Minister Han concluded with an assessment that the agreement’s implementation will further deepen China-U.S. cooperation and strengthen the role of agriculture as a pillar in bilateral relations.

Nearly all commentary on agricultural impacts in Chinese news media regurgitated tariff numbers and excerpts from Han's remarks. One article added a paragraph with several reasons why the phase I deal would not have much impact on markets before the end of the year. Unnamed market analysts said African swine fever is expected to depress demand for corn and soybean meal through May; relatively large import volumes of sunflower seed meal is being used as a substitute in poultry feed; a release of rice reserves is substituting for corn in southern provinces; and farmers in Hebei and Henan Province have large volumes of new-crop corn on hand they will likely sell in the spring. However, the analysts also point to several other factors supporting corn and soy meal prices: declining temporary reserves of corn, low soy meal stocks held by crushing plants, and relatively low inventories of corn and soy meal held by private traders.

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