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Trump has a 'legitimate' gripe with China, but his trade war alienated partners, Democrat Beto O'Rourke says

Key Points
  • Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke opened his presidential 2020 campaign on the trail in Iowa, a key state caught in the middle of the trade battle between the U.S. and China.
  • While O'Rourke on Thursday said President Donald Trump had a "legitimate" cause to challenge China over its perceived gaming of the international trade system, the Democratic hopeful said the president was going about it the wrong way.
  • "We want him to be successful in this, but as I was reminded by a fellow Iowan, when have we ever gone to war, including a trade war without allies?" O'Rourke said at a coffee shop in Keokuk, Iowa.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to a crowd of marchers during in El Paso, Texas, on February 11, 2019.
PAUL RATJE | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke opened his presidential 2020 campaign on the trail in Iowa, a key state caught in the middle of the trade battle between the U.S. and China.

While O'Rourke on Thursday said President Donald Trump had a "legitimate" cause to challenge China over its perceived gaming of the international trade system, O'Rourke said he was going about it the wrong way.

"We want him to be successful in this, but as I was reminded by a fellow Iowan, when have we ever gone to war, including a trade war without allies?" O'Rourke said at a coffee shop in Keokuk, Iowa, hours after he officially launched his bid for the White House. "When have we first alienated every single trading partner we have, as this country has done under Trump's leadership, before confronting one of the largest economies in the world today, one of the largest markets for soybeans for corn for what we produce in Iowa and Texas and around the country?"

Read more: 'I'm a capitalist': Beto O'Rourke's view of markets puts him on the right in the 2020 Dem field

He added: "Let's make sure we hold other countries of the world accountable, but let's not do it at the expense of our farmers, our growers, our producers, those who are fundamental to the success of the U.S. economy."

The Iowa caucuses are the first contests of the presidential election season, so O'Rourke, like his rivals in the 2020 race, is eager to make a good impression on voters in the state. Iowa is also a swing state in the general election. The state voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 after voting for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. 

The trade war with China, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the biggest issues in the state.

The world's two largest economies have exchanged tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars of goods, slowing global economic growth and disrupting supply chains. China placed tariffs on U.S. soybeans, corn, wheat, fresh fruit, as well as hefty import taxes on American pork products, which now exceed 70 percent.

What's more, nearly $20 billion in U.S. agricultural exports went to China last year, with soybeans accounting for more than half of that amount. The U.S. market sold approximately 33 million tons of soybeans in 2017 to China, which is a little over a third of the beans imported by the Asian country.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig told CNBC in a September interview that the trade disputes would inevitably harm Iowa's corn and soybean harvest since about one-third of Iowa's soybeans go to China. In addition, Iowa is also a major producer of pork and sold $1.1 billion in pork products last year.

"Our farmers understand that there are issues that need to be resolved, particularly with China. But there is no doubt that the retaliatory tariffs are impacting our marketplace and that's impacting our producers negatively," Naig said in an interview in September on CNBC's "Closing Bell."

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he was in no rush to come to a trade deal with China and gave no indication of when he would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I'm in no rush. I want the deal to be right ... I am not in a rush whatsoever. It's got to be the right deal. It's got to be a good deal for us and if it's not, we're not going to make that deal," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Trump decided in February that he would not increase tariffs on Chinese goods at the beginning of March.

CNBC's Jeff Daniels contributed to this report.