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Washington concerned China may restrict grain trade -U.S. official

ARLINGTON, Va., Feb 23 (Reuters) - The United States is concerned that China might impose trade barriers on U.S. grains sales if trade relations between the world's two largest economies worsen, Jason Hafemeister, trade counsel to the U.S. agriculture secretary, said on Friday.

China is the top buyer of U.S. agricultural produce. Beijing launched an anti-dumping probe into U.S. exports of sorghum in early February, a move regarded as a warning to Washington shortly after the U.S. slapped tariffs on imports of solar panels.

Since then, there has been concern in the grains trade that China might target more U.S. farmers with measures that would hurt sales of soybeans or other crops. U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized some of the country's top trade partners, including China and Mexico, as he seeks to negotiate better terms for access to U.S. markets.

"We are aware of these ideas and they are of concern to us since China is such an important market for U.S. farmers," Hafemeister told Reuters on the sidelines of an industry conference.

"Our objective is not only to keep our access to China but to expand it more broadly by having China dismantle unjustified barriers, added Hafemeister, who serves as the U.S. Agriculture Department's acting deputy under secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

Asked whether there were grains or specific areas causing more trade concerns than others, he mentioned soybeans and sorghum.

"The U.S. exports $14 billion a year of soybeans to China, so that is a very important market," he said. (Reporting by Ana Mano in Arlington; Editing by Tom Brown)