Ricketts: Despite what Trump says, U.S. should try to boost trade with China

Despite President-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of foreign trade deals and China’s trade practices, the United States should continue seeking ways to boost trade with China and other countries, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday.

“If that’s not going to get done, we’re really putting ourselves behind the eight ball with China,” Ricketts said.

In a conference call with reporters while in Hong Kong, the Nebraska delegation’s last stop on a 10-day trade mission to China, the governor said he hasn’t talked with members of Trump’s transition team other than to send a congratulatory text to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Ricketts supported fellow Republicans Trump and Pence during their campaign.

The governor said he still favors the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The proposed trade agreement would open more trade among the U.S. and 11 other nations that border the Pacific Ocean, not including China.

U.S. approval of the TPP is pending in Congress, but Trump has said repeatedly the United States should reject the treaty to protect U.S. manufacturers and because its terms don’t benefit the United States.

Trump also has criticized China’s trade policies, pledging to put a 45 percent tariff on imported goods from China and to label China as a currency manipulator, saying it unfairly sets its currency value to favor Chinese goods.

Many observers think Trump’s election killed any chance of the United States agreeing to the treaty, but Ricketts said that remains to be seen.

“I think that the U.S. ought to be looking at these types of relationships like TPP” that reduce trade barriers, he said. “That’s a big deal.”

He said the agreement would make U.S. products, including Nebraska beef, more affordable in foreign markets, such as lowering Japan’s tariff on U.S. beef from 38 percent to 9 percent. “That would really help us be competitive.”

He said he doesn’t know whether the TPP would come up for a vote during the coming “lame-duck” session of Congress, so-called because some of its members were voted out or will leave office on their own after this year.

After last week’s election, Ricketts said, the Chinese officials he has met have been “amazingly supportive” and are looking forward to working with the Trump administration.

“The reaction has been congratulatory,” he said. “Elected officials have congratulated Trump and me for Donald Trump on his victory, knowing that I was one of his supporters. They’ve been very positive, frankly, with regard to what opportunities there are in front of us.”

During the trade mission, the Nebraska officials signed nine “letters of intent” with food importers, suppliers, hotel and restaurant operators, and others who pledge to sell Nebraska beef.

Nebraska Agriculture Director Greg Ibach, also on the conference call, said the letters are not legally binding but have value in establishing or continuing business relationships.

Nebraska exported $239 million worth of beef to Hong Kong and neighboring Macau in 2014, but the government has banned U.S. beef elsewhere in China since 2003 due to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a disease known commonly as Mad Cow.

Ibach called that a “trade dispute,” noting that the World Trade Organization has said U.S. beef is safe.

He said his department encourages restaurants to buy Nebraska-produced beef, a branding practice that has succeeded in boosting foreign sales in Europe and in some places in Asia, he said. The pork industry hasn’t moved toward tracking pork production to specific locations, so it’s not branded as Nebraska pork.

The group went to a medical school in Shanghai that has a training agreement with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a culinary school in Hong Kong that teaches students about Nebraska-branded beef.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to have students that are learning about being chefs and managing hotels and restaurants to get familiar with Nebraska, and as they move into higher management levels in their careers, hopefully they’ll come back and remember what Nebraska beef was,” Ibach said.

The Nebraska Beef Council sponsored a barbecue in Macau attended by about 350 people with food stations serving various beef and pork dishes.

The group had lunch at the Nebraska Steakhouse in Hong Kong and signed a letter of intent with its owner to continue using Nebraska-produced beef.

Ibach said the group talked with Chinese officials about corn, soybeans, beef, pork, popcorn and ethanol, including its distiller’s grain byproduct. The group held a tailgate party, inviting some Nebraska alumni who live in China to watch the Nebraska-Minnesota football game.

About 70 people from the state took part in the trade mission at various times. The group helped break ground on a demonstration farm and met with companies investing in Nebraska and doing business in the state.

Overall, Ricketts said, “I’ve been very pleased with how this has gone. It really was a wonderful trade mission.”

steve.jordon@owh.com, 402-444-1080, twitter.com/buffettOWH

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