The Trump administration is claiming success in the “phase one” trade deal with China with a new report released less than two weeks before the presidential election.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative asserts that even though China’s agricultural commodity purchases may not reach the first-year goal, Chinese imports will come very close in a year when trade was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the agreement entered into force eight months ago, we have seen remarkable improvements in our agricultural trade relationship with China, which will benefit our farmers and ranchers for years to come,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

The USTR says China has purchased $23.6 billion worth of U.S. farm commodities so far this year and applied that to the goal for Chinese purchases set out in “phase one” — about $36.5 billion. But purchases don’t always translate into physical shipments, and some of those shipments will arrive in China next year.

“We definitely haven’t shipped that much yet,” says Joe Glauber, a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and former USDA Chief Economist. “It’s unclear whether all those sales will come in 2020, so I don’t know how solid that number is.”

And that number was reached by complicated accounting to avoid relying on solely physical exports.

“What we have done is combine actual export numbers with the sales indicated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture weekly Export Sales Reports (adjusting to eliminate any double counting) then, since the weekly sales reports only cover approximately 80 percent of U.S. agriculture sales, we have proportionally adjusted upward to cover products not included in the weekly reports,” USTR said in the report.

Glauber stressed U.S. ag sales to China have been strong this year, but he also noted the “phase one” pledge by China is for physical imports that have arrived in China.

The text of the trade pact, which was implemented in February, states the U.S. ag commodities will be “purchased and imported into China from the United States in calendar year 2020.”

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Regardless, Lighthizer and Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue stress U.S. ag trade with China is extremely strong.

“Export Sales Reporting indicates that, as of October 8, 2020, outstanding sales this year far exceed the number reported in the same period in 2017, which is the year used to determine baseline sales for purposes of the Phase One Agreement,” USTR said in the report. “These export sales numbers indicate strong actual export totals through the end of the year. Outstanding sales of corn to China are 8.7 million tons, an all-time high, while outstanding sales of soybeans to China stand at 17.4 million tons, double 2017 levels.”

“Being able to participate in this market in a more fair and equitable way has generated more sales that are supporting higher prices and strengthening the rural economy,” Perdue said.

Glauber agreed “this has been a great year,” but stressed China is “not going to reach that target. They’re not going to be anywhere close.”

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