Great Falls Tribune: North Korea casts shadow on Montana Sen. Daines’ talks on trade

The express goal of the congressional delegation’s trip to the Far East was to open U.S. export opportunities in China, Tibet, Hong Kong and Japan. But recent global events have largely overtaken that agenda, with an intensifying confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea over missile launches and nuclear testing grabbing the world’s attention.

On Monday, Montana Sen. Steve Daines hosted a telephone news conference with more than a dozen regional news outlets to discuss his, and a host of other export-hungry congressmen’s efforts to expand U.S. trade opportunities in the Pacific Rim.

“I’ve just returned from a congressional delegation visit to China and Japan,” Daines said at the outset of the briefing. “We left Washington, D.C., last weekend and arrived in Beijing Sunday evening a week ago. We started with Monday meetings in Beijing where we had a really historic chance to have a meeting with China’s Premier, as well as the Chairman of the National People’s Congress.”

Those meeting could prove to be a key toward ending China’s 13-year-old ban on U.S. beef imports; harkening back to 2003 when a single cow in Washington state was confirmed to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE or “mad cow disease”), a brain-wasting disease potentially transmittable to humans.

China was never a major U.S. beef importer, accounting for less than $10 million in U.S. beef sales in 2002. However, a rapidly growing middle class has sparked a growing hunger for red meat in the Middle Kingdom.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chinese consumers purchased close to 6.8 million tons of imported beef in 2016; a widely desired food item now worth close to $2.3 billion annually. China is now the world’s second largest beef importing nation, with little to suggest that the Chinese’s taste for beef will slow anytime soon.

In recent years most of that red meat has come from Brazil and Australia. Trade groups like the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and the U.S. Meat Export Federation are pushing for a negotiated end to the Chinese ban on U.S. beef, to crack open Chinese markets and gain access to the 1.3 billion potential consumers who can be found there.

“It’s been 13, now 14 years since that incident occurred,” Daines said of the BSE scare. “They (the Chinese) are convinced that we have a safe and reliable supply of beef. There are some final technical issues related to traceability that we are sorting out, but I’m confident we will get these resolved. In fact they said the last remaining step is to get your secretary of agriculture approved, and that will happen on Monday.”

While agricultural trade was the focus of Daines’ visit, events on the Korean peninsula were never far from sight.

“In every place that we stopped North Korea did come up.” Daines said. “Those missiles that were launched a couple of weeks ago from North Korea were pointed at Japan. The Japanese are very, very concerned about what’s going on in North Korea, as are the Chinese.”

As a U.S. aircraft carrier group steamed into the East China Sea and Chinese President Xi Jinping engaged in talks with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the prospect of conflict in North Korea was never far outside of the congressional trade delegation’s agenda.

“Vice President (Mike) Pence followed us to Asia this week,” Daines said. “A lot of our meetings were held in the context of knowing that Vice President Pence was going to be coming a few days after us.

“He said the eera of strategic patience is over,’” Daines said, repeating a statement made by Pence while visiting the Korean demilitarized zone. “Of course, we’re all very concerned that North Korea will eventually build up a nuclear program and be able to put a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile. That presents a threat, not just to Asia, but to the entire world. They could reach Hawaii, the western U.S. and even the rest of the continental U.S. The focus right now is, one, sending a strong message to North Korea that this is not going to be tolerated, and number two, asking our allies to join us in trade sanctions.”

In recent days it’s been suggested that Chinese patience with the bellicose North Koreans is fading. Daines suggested that the Chinese are at least open to discussing the possibility of coordinated trade sanctions against the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

“We were very direct in asking the Chinese to help us with trade sanctions and so forth with North Korea,” Daines said. “Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade occurs with China, so China’s the key to trade sanctions and banking sanctions with North Korea.

“We talked about oil, we talked about coal, we talked about banking,” the Montana senator added of his conversations on North Korea. “The Chinese are very aware of the important role that they will play and the requests we are making and asking of them to work with us to stop the development of nuclear weapons there in North Korea.”