With friends like these... How US-China deal makes ag trade tougher

Ag's China export windfall not so easy as US politics muscles in

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Australia's celebrated bilateral free trade deal with China is losing some of its shine with farmers

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After enjoying five years of rapidly increasing export benefits provided by Australia's much vaunted bilateral free trade deal with China, the future may not be quite so appealing for farmers.

Thanks, in part, to the US president Donald Trump riding his own roughshod trade agenda into key global markets, Australian farmers are being warned to anticipate many more perplexing export disruptions like this month's restrictions on Australian barley and beef exports to China.

Although it didn't hold the headlines for long back in January when much of rural Australia was battling bushfires or ongoing drought, or both, the US achieved a remarkable coup with China, locking down a bilateral goods and services export deal potentially worth almost $400 billion ($US257b) by next year.

With a US presidential election looming, the agricultural component of the deal alone commits China to buying more than $US40b in commodities from President Trump's rural support base.

That's double what the Chinese were importing from the US three years ago before US-China trade relations descended into a war of words and tariff barriers which both nations are now apparently aiming to repair.

China will have to manage its trade to meet purchasing targets in the US-China trade deal - Jeffrey Schott, Peterson Institute

While Australia has enjoyed booming farm export sales to China now worth $12b-plus - more than double their 2016 value - trade analysts expect some commodity sectors will find Chinese importers growing harder to predict and less interested in Aussie product.

Enforcing US favouritism

"China will have to manage its trade to meet purchasing targets in the US-China trade deal," said Washington-based Jeffrey J Schott at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

He said Beijing's options ranged from easing penalty tariffs to encourage imports from US suppliers, through to pressuring Chinese firms to buy American or "divert their purchases away from other markets, including Australia".

Regardless of our China free trade deal, Mr Schott said the farm sector had to expect Chinese commitments to buy from Australia or other valued partners such as Brazil or the European Union would bend or be broken.

Beijing would ensure discrete financial system signals to importers, "or other interventionist ways", would force private firms to favour buying from the US.

Jeffrey Schott

Jeffrey Schott

Although there was still a barrage of undiplomatic words firing back and forth between China and the US, particularly about the coronavirus pandemic, US-friendly adjustments in Chinese policy appeared to be happening already said former trade ministerial adviser and China specialist with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Prue Gordon.

"The feedback I'm getting is China is trying to set up conditions which make it easier to accept US product and require importers to find reasons to shift to buying from America," said Ms Gordon, who also worked with the National Farmers Federation until recently.

"They're certainly making efforts to more readily accept US food exports, including changing phytosanitary regulations."

USDA approved

While Australian meat traders must comply with local inspections and quality assurance certification, then satisfy Chinese standards and labelling specifications, Beijing's modified approval processes automatically accepted US exports approved by US Department of Agriculture.

Ms Gordon said while Australia would not be hurt by a jump in China's US soybean orders, farmers may feel the sting of less predictable Chinese buying interest in our beef, dairy, other grain, wine and horticultural categories.

As China's buying preferences pivoted market reverberations would be felt globally.

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Regardless of their public spats the world's two biggest economies were working behind the scenes on bilateral trade opportunities beneficial to themselves, with Beijing keen to be seen honouring its January trade commitments with Washington.

Conveniently for China, a shift to accommodate more US farm products was also a chance to send a message to prominent agricultural exporter Australia to treat the dragon economy with heightened political respect on the world stage.

China was also unlikely to be greatly troubled if its trade manoeuvres with the US created friction in the long-established political and economic relationship between Australia and America.

Mr Schott said the trade outlook for export dependent countries like Australia was generally going to be "a tougher row to hoe".

After decades of world trade liberalisation, protectionist policies were returning and opportunistic country-to-country alliances were actually undermining international demand.

Australian farmers have enjoyed exceptional export growth because of China, but there can be disruptions, as we've seen lately - Tony Mahar, National Farmers Federation

He said despite the lower trade barriers and sales growth achieved by the 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and another deal with Japan,our tariff gains had since been eroded by both countries also doing more bilateral deals with the likes of the US and the EU.

New trade era

However, direct trade deals were a fact of life these days, even if benefits may be patchy and vulnerable to being gazumped by other rivals, said GrainGrowers chief executive officer David McKeon.

They were faster to implement than the multi-layered, multi-nation relationships negotiated over many, many years in the 1980s and '90s and they facilitated less formalised programs to move economic co-operation and business forward.

Tony Mahar

Tony Mahar

NFF CEO Tony Mahar said it was no surprise "everybody wants to be trading and doing some sort of free trade deal with China".

"We've always said China is a great market and Australian farmers have enjoyed exceptional export growth because of China, but there can be disruptions, as we've seen lately," he said.

"Most people in ag know that international markets can be volatile.

"We must make the most of that scenario, but also continue diversifying our export footprint to give us the right mix of returns and risk.

"We know the world wants food and fibre and the price of entry into new markets, or retaining existing ones, is having good quality produce, safe production standards, traceability and being ready to take advantage of opportunities when they come up."

Australian Farm Institute executive director Richard Heath said it was tempting to make the link between political tensions and trade disruptions like China's latest ban on certain abattoir exports, but agricultural exporters worked in an environment far more complex than that.

"We just have to pursue markets within the channels available to us and look for innovative solutions to achieve those sales."

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