Summit Speaker: Ag Exports, China’s Cheating, Remain Trade Priorities

by Ray Starling, 2021 Summit speaker

The Office of the United States Trade Representative on March 1 released President Biden’s 2021 trade policy agenda. Anyone who has helped put together this kind of publication can tell you its development is no small undertaking. This is particularly true when such a public work must come to print in fewer than 45 days after President Biden was sworn in, and before the president’s trade representative nominee, Katherine Tai, has even cleared the U.S. Senate. Many long days, nights, and weekends were sacrificed to reduce the agenda to its present form.

The authors would be thrilled we are discussing it here. Or anywhere. Or at all.

What strikes me about the Biden trade agenda is not how different it is from former President Trump’s agenda, but instead, just how similar the two are in a couple of key respects. To be clear, there are differences—emphasis on climate change and on how trade policy impacts racial equity for starters—but some of the policy signals are indistinguishable from what you might have seen beneath Trump administration letterhead.

The Biden administration is fully signaling that China’s coercive and unfair trade practices remain on the punch list for reform. In their words, they will use “all available tools” to curb China’s abusive behavior, but they will use them in a “more systematic approach than the piecemeal approach of the recent past.” There is no denying that plenty of criticism for Trump’s trade policy toward China exists, but what is more difficult to deny is the fact that the need to address Chinese unfairness is now solidly front of mind for the new (and any subsequent) administration and, for what it is worth, Congress now and congresses future. In other words, standing up to China’s trade practices is now mainstream.

It remains to be seen exactly what President Biden’s aforementioned “more systematic approach” to trade with China will be, but the talking heads all seem to agree that the underlying goal, without regard to the tools used to get there, is to solidify the manufacturing sector here at home.

That should sound familiar. And it should be good news for Association members. President Trump’s America First policy resonated with working class Americans, and Biden will appeal to some of that same populist sentiment when his emissaries push to enforce stronger labor protection rules in the newly minted USMCA, for example, and when they insist that similar language be included in next generation trade agreements (or as a condition of revoking Trump’s existing tariffs elsewhere). The goal here, of course, is a more level playing field for domestic manufacturers, and hopefully a re-onshoring revival.

The Biden agenda also includes language explicitly signaling that farmers and ranchers will benefit from improved trade policy on 46’s watch. The new administration plans to “stand up” for farmers and “expand [their] global market opportunities,” but doesn’t want to burden the ag community with “erratic trade actions that were taken without a broader strategy.”

Again, short on details, but the rhetoric supporting farmers is a good start. I suspect farmers would gladly swap the focus on tariffs for something else, but it appears we will all have to wait and see what that something else will be. For now, we can be relieved that maintaining a level playing field for our farmers is still on the international trade objectives radar.

Perhaps no administration talked more about selling American farmers’ products elsewhere and Chinese cheating than President Trump’s. It appears those conversations are far from over. That is a good thing, whether you’re a conservative, progressive, or something in between.

Starling will lead a session at the Summit focused on what’s ahead for agriculture in terms of the economy, politics, and the sustainability movement. Meet him there.

Starling has been the general counsel for a state department of agriculture, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, and Chief of Staff to a U.S. senator. He joined the White House in 2017 as special assistant to the president for agricultural policy. In 2018, he became chief of staff for USDA’s Sonny Perdue. He returned to his home state of North Carolina as general counsel to the state’s Chamber of Commerce.