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Main Hall, University of Montana file

Main Hall on the University of Montana campus.

Terry Weidner gave a succinct take on U.S.-China relations Monday night:

“The way we are responding to the things that upset us in China isn’t very smart.”

Weidner, professor emeritus of international relations and comparative politics at the University of Montana, offered this assessment to about 70 guests at a Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center forum Monday night at the University of Montana. Hosted in conjunction with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, it started with a webcast conversation among national China experts, then transitioned into small group discussions led by UM-affiliated experts on the rising Asian superpower.

The webcast, moderated by ABC anchor George Stephanopolous and streamed to more than 80 similar gatherings in the United States and China, consisted of Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations; Melanie Hart, Senior Fellow and Director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress; Yashang Huang; professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management; and Ely Ratner; Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security.

Both groups of commentators echoed Weidner’s point, whether talking about the Hong Kong protests, the situation with North Korea, or a topic with major implications for Montana: trade.

“This trade war waged by tariffs is failing,” said Dexter Roberts, a Mansfield Center fellow and frequent commentator on U.S.-ChIna relations, at the event.

Roberts was among the Mansfield Center's moderators for the follow-up discussions. Others were Jingjing Sun, UM assistant professor of educational psychology; Joanna Shelton, former secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; Si Gao, a doctoral student at the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation; Robert Seidenschwarz, founder of SG Long Financial and president emeritus of the Montana World Affairs Council; Phyllis Ngai, a UM adjunct professor of communication; and Yueyang Hu, a UM College of Business Administration graduate student.

The United States and China have placed billions of dollars’ worth of tariffs on each others’ goods since 2018. Agriculture has been hit hard. “There’s no question that demand for things like pork and wheat is going up” in China as that country’s living standards increase and a dearth of arable land has required it to seek agricultural goods from the rest of the world, Roberts said before the event.

But the past year’s tariffs have put U.S. farmers at a disadvantage in this market. As of September, the South China Morning Post reported American pork producers faced a 72% tariff, compared to 12% for other nations.The value of U.S. farm exports to China dropped from $19.5 billion in 2017 to $9.2 billion in 2018. As of this past August, Montana farmers had received more than $28 million in payouts from a government program meant to compensate farmers for trade-war related losses.

“The stories that I’m hearing … from family farms are absolutely atrocious,” Hart said during the webcast.

Meanwhile, concerns persist over forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft from foreign companies doing business in China. Weidner gave President Donald Trump credit for recognizing these problems, but condemned his go-it-alone approach to them. "‘America First’ has become ‘America by itself,’” he said. “The things that bother us about China trade bother the Koreans, the Japanese, the European Union, Southeast Asians, and we had a chance with Trans Pacific Partnership to unite and try to bring pressure as a full spectrum of sovereign states. We gave up on that.”

Chinese and U.S. negotiators remain at odds over agricultural imports and other aspects of the trading relationship. Weidner thinks the impeachment proceedings and looming presidential election don’t give China any incentive to hurry.

“I think they’ve been dragging their feet from the get-go based on the premise that Trump won’t be around,” he said, predicting China will "make some concessions, but just enough to make it look like there was in fact a compromise.”

With a strong appetite for farm products — and a threat to its domestic pork supply in the form of African swine fever — Weidner thinks that “agriculture has the best outlook” for those concessions, “but beyond that I don’t see any big wins coming.”

Even if the tariffs do come down again for Montana farmers, both Weidner and Roberts predict they’ll face new competition upon their return to China. “One of the big outcomes of this trade war is that China has found markets elsewhere,” Weidner said. “Before, we were the go-to country to buy agricultural products. Now, they’ve gone to Brazil, and increasingly Canada and Australia. … Now they’ve created new relationships.”

“I think there’s a real possibility that these markets could be … lost forever,” Roberts said before the event.

But the trade war is hurting business in China too, said Nicole Ran, a graduate student at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China and a project manager for an oil drilling company there. “We hope that it can end quickly,” she said of the trade war. “We hope they can reach a better resolution and negotiate more frequently.”

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