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"We've invested quite a lot of time and money in building the market in China for 15 years, and then this may force us to reduce the amount of wine we're going to sell there just because our wines will become less economically viable," said David Amadia, president of Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
For the last five years, Ridge Vineyards has enjoyed "consistent growth" in the Chinese market even as it competes with premium French and Italian wines as well as Australian wines. But he said the new 15 percent Chinese tariff likely means "it will sort of be a lost investment."
China's finance ministry announced in a statement published Sunday it would impose retaliatory tariffs on up to 128 kinds of U.S. goods, following through on a threat initially made March 23 by Beijing that it would target $3 billion worth of American imports.
China is increasing the tariff on U.S. pork by 25 percent, and a new 15 percent duty will apply to other food commodities in addition to wine, including fresh fruits such as apples, cherries and citrus as well as dried fruit and nuts such as almonds and pistachios.
China's government said Sunday the move follows the Trump administration last month announcing hefty tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. In announcing the action last month, the White House cited national security concerns but also initially exempted certain countries, such as Canada and Mexico.
"It's a first step that has a lot of us concerned," said Will Rodger, director of policy communications for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the large ag trade group based in Washington. "It will probably have some effect on pork prices. What exactly they'll be is hard to say."
There's concern that soybeans could be the next agricultural commodity targeted by Beijing after Trump announces duties on Chinese tech products. The U.S. ships more than $12 billion in soybeans to the world's second-largest economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"This is in many ways the calm before the storm," said Matt McAlvanah, a former official for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and now a spokesman for Farmers for Free Trade, a bipartisan nonprofit agriculture-related trade group. "We expect there to be much larger and broader retaliation on ag products from the 301 trade action."
Indeed, the Trump administration is widely expected to impose more than $50 billion in tariffs separate from those already announced on aluminum and steel imports, according to reports. Those additional tariffs are expected to be on everything from Chinese consumer electronics to potentially aerospace products and are following a trade investigation under Section 301 of the 1974 U.S. Trade Act.
"Once China gets wind of that list, you're going to see a much larger retaliation from China that would potentially hit some of their biggest imports from the U.S., including soy," said McAlvanah.
Agriculture industry executives say China curtailing U.S. soybean imports could be devastating to the American farm economy, because more than 60 percent of all soybeans exported now go to China. The Chinese also get soybeans from South America and use most of the soybeans as protein to feed roughly 700 million pigs in the country or to make cooking oil.
"The choice of what they put tariffs on is purely strategic," said Sherman Robinson, nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based think tank. "The point about the 15 percent is, in many cases it's probably enough to drive out the [American] imports. What you will see is trade diversion to China's other trading partners to fill in for what the U.S. loses."
U.S. agricultural product exports to China totaled $19.6 billion in 2017 and represented just over 14 percent share of American farm exports, according to the USDA. The only larger destination is Canada, with about $20.5 billion in U.S. agricultural exports last year and nearly 15 percent share.
"As is the case with China, agricultural products are often among the first to be targeted in retaliation," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "The administration stands ready to defend agricultural producers who may be harmed. As we take a stronger approach to the way we handle trade as a nation, we will use all of our authorities to ensure that we protect and preserve our agricultural interests."
The duties, effective Monday, also apply to U.S. pork and ethanol — two major corn markets — and are likely to be felt particularly in the Midwestern states where President Donald Trump enjoyed strong support in the 2016 presidential election.
One in four hogs in the U.S. is exported overseas, and the Chinese are the world's top consumers of pork. At about $1.1 billion, China and Hong Kong together are the third-largest market for U.S. pork based on value.
For the U.S. pork industry, China also is significant because many consumers enjoy so-called variety meats from the hog that are not always popular in the American market, including some internal organs and feet of the animal.
"China is a very complementary relationship that allows U.S. pork producers to extract more value from the hog," said Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, a trade group. "We're hopeful that the U.S. and China can resolve their trade disputes and that we can return to more favorable access to what is a very important market for us."
Competitors that stand to benefit from any U.S. market loss in pork include the European Union (particularly Denmark, Spain and Germany), Brazil and Canada. Around 10 percent of Australia's pork is exported, but they do not currently ship into mainland China due to existing restrictions.
However, the U.S. could lose market share on fruit, nuts and wine to Australia. Almost 40 percent of Australia's fruit exports last year went to China and Hong Kong, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Also, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa also have been getting in on the action.
"The decision by the Chinese government to levy exorbitant tariff increases on U.S. produce will surely have a direct impact on California citrus producers," said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, a trade group representing about three-fourths of the state's $3.3 billion citrus industry.
Added Nelsen, "The retaliatory tariffs imposed by China hinders our ability to be competitive by increasing costs for Chinese consumers, an important market for California citrus. Family farmers in our industry will suffer from the economic fallout unless we can find alternative markets for California's navel and Valencia oranges and lemons."
Nelsen said the Australians are major competitors to the U.S. in citrus imports to China along with South Africa, Spain and Egypt, to a lesser extent. Chile also is a major importer of other fresh fruit to China, especially cherries, grapes, plums, apples and avocados.
Australia's almond industry now exports more than $300 million of the product overseas, but California's $5 billion almond industry still depends on exports since about two-thirds of the product grown in the state goes overseas and China is one of the top buyers. The Chinese tariffs on nuts also will impact macadamia nuts grown in Hawaii.
Meantime, Australia's wine industry has been making inroads into China and seeing faster growth than some European competitors, due in part to more marketing efforts. It also comes as a result of reduced tariffs through the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect at the end of 2015.
"If U.S. wines are subjected to higher tariffs when imported into China, that would have a direct benefit to other suppliers into that rapidly growing market, especially France and Australia — the two largest suppliers of premium wines to China," said Kym Anderson, a professor of economics at the University of Adelaide in Australia and also executive director of the university's Wine Economics Research Center.
Figures from Wine Australia show the value of wine exports to mainland China grew by 63 percent to a record AUS$848 million (US$652 million) in 2017 and represented about one-third of the total export market for Australia. By comparison, U.S. wine exports in dollars to mainland China fell 3 percent to nearly $79 million in 2017, according to the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group for the industry.
The new Chinese tariffs follow Congress last year giving the wine industry a break by passing the first wine excise tax reduction in over 80 years.
"The tax reform we had recently helped the wine business because we got a break on our federal taxes," said Corey Beck, CEO of Francis Coppola Winery in California's Sonoma County. "So we were going to use that savings this year for additional stainless steel tanks. But now with the tariff on stainless coming in, our prices have jumped up dramatically. So we have to review if we're going to go ahead with this stainless steel project for tanks."
Even so, China has been a difficult market at times for U.S. wine companies. "China is a challenge for exporting wine, but many of our California and other West Coast wines have been successful in building a market there," said Michael Havens, an export broker with California American Terroirs, a Sonoma-based distributor of U.S. wines to importers in Asia, Europe and other markets. "The compliance burden in China is huge, and documents are extensive and different at different ports."
Regardless, the Wine Institute said the move by the Chinese to add a new 15 percent tariff will increase the total tariff and tax paid on a bottle of U.S. wine imported into China from just over 48 percent to almost 68 percent. It notes that Chile and New Zealand wines enter China tariff-free and only pay a 30 percent combined tax rate while Australian wines will be tariff-free starting in 2019.
"This new increased tariff will have a chilling effect on U.S. wine exports to one of the world's most important markets," said Robert Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute. "U.S. producers were already at a disadvantage to many foreign competitors, and this will only exacerbate that problem. We urge a swift resolution to this crisis before long-term damage is done to the U.S. wine industry."