When Sen. Steven Daines, R-Mont., traveled to China last week, he took with him a special gift from northeastern Montana. That gift was four steaks from the ranch of Fred Wacker of Miles City, Montana, packed inside a cooler, hand-carried by the senator.
These were ultimately presented to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as part of efforts to seal a deal to open Chinese markets to American beef. China closed its markets to U.S. beef after a Washington dairy cow was identified in 2003 with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly referred to as mad cow disease, and they have been closed ever since.
China had announced in September that it would lift the 13-year ban on U.S. beef, but there are many technical issues to sort through, the country has said, and the ban is still in place.
Daines said he believes the meetings with China went positively and that the issues and the slow-walking can soon be resolved — though he did not have a timetable on when American beef could begin to ship overseas.
“They are convinced we have a safe, reliable supply of beef,” he said. “There are some final, technical issues related to traceability that we are sorting out with the Chinese. I am confident we can get it resolved. One of the last remaining issues is getting the Secretary of Agriculture approved, and that will happen Monday.”
China has been waiting on the appointment to release plans for lifting the ban, Daines said he was told. With that out of the way, he is confident things can begin to proceed more quickly.
Opening the market is about more than a short-term fix for a fall in commodity prices, Daines added. China has one of the largest markets for beef in the world, and with an emerging middle class, that is growing rapidly.
“They have 1.4 billion customers there,” he said. “It’s not just about today, but long-term. Kids in Montana growing up on farms and ranches — who are they going to be selling to? We are laying the groundwork for the future of Montana agriculture.”
Daines presented Keqiang with a photograph of Fred Wacker when he gave China’s No. 2 official the cooler of beef. Keqiang then wanted to know if Wacker is a cowboy.
“So we are going to continue to work to finalize the agreement to get U.S. beef into China,” Daines said. “It is part of a 100 days action plan President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump agreed to in Mar-a-Lago.”
The delegation also traveled to Japan. There they discussed the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump has vowed to back out of.
“Both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump opposed TPP,” Daines said. “There was not a strong appetite for it in the U.S. Congress either. So a message I sent to Japan, which was part of TPP — there were 11 countries — is that it is not going anywhere, so it is now time to focus on the a bilateral agreement.”
Daines acknowledged some parts of TPP were good for Montana’s agricultural producers. For one, tariffs on U.S. beef in Japan would have been lowered from 30 percent to 9.
Japan was disappointed TPP fell through, Daines said, and has moved forward with ratifying it without the United States among its number.
“My message was one, that TPP is not going anywhere, so don’t rest any hopes in it,” Daines said. “Let’s put our hopes in a bilateral agreement.”
Daines said U.S. leaders will be talking to Japan’s leadership next week about a bilateral trade agreement.
“We were setting the stage for those discussions,” Daines said. “There’s too much at stake between the U.S. and Japan to stop progress made in the multilateral trade agreements. The relationship between Japan and the U.S. is very strong. It’s probably as strong as it has been in many years, according to conversations I’ve had with the American embassy there and leaders in Japan. They have been pleased to see a more decisive executive branch with President Trump. The firmer stance with North Korea has been received well.”