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“Make sure I win.”
That was U.S. President Donald Trump’s plea to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a June 2018 dinner in Osaka, Japan, according to former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.
The dinner, held on the sidelines of a Group of 20 conference, came days after the White House announced a list of more than a thousand Chinese products targeted for 25% import tariffs. Trump, according to Bolton’s tell-all memoir, The Room Where It Happened, implored Xi to ramp up Chinese purchases of American agricultural products so that Trump could claim political credit in crucial midwestern swing states—and clinch his re-election.
“I probably will win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms… Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win,” Trump allegedly told Xi.
Trump’s Justice Department deemed Bolton’s recollection of that exchange so damning that it filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the book not be released unless Trump’s exact words were removed. (The publisher complied, but unredacted pages of Bolton’s original manuscript were leaked to Vanity Fair.)
Trump and Xi agreed in Osaka to restart trade negotiations, and in January of this year signed a ‘Phase One’ agreement committing China to increase purchases of American goods and services by $200 billion over the next two years. But now, with the election just days away, Trump’s nakedly political appeal to Xi seems almost irrelevant.
As we’ve noted previously in Eastworld, China is buying more farm products from the U.S. each month but at a pace far short of what’s necessary to reach the agreement’s year-end targets. China’s purchases of manufactured products, which account for about 70% of the deal, are even further behind.
America’s trade deficit in goods with China was $345 billion in 2019, only $2 billion less than in 2016 when Trump was elected.
Tariffs remain in place on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods traded between the world’s two largest economies remain in place. And as Grady noted earlier this week, the tariffs don’t work the way Trump says they do; they’re not paid by the Chinese government or Chinese exporters but by U.S. importers and, indirectly, American consumers. American taxpayers, not China, are paying for federal farm subsidies aimed at offsetting the effects of the trade war, and those subsidies have mostly benefited large, wealthy farms and corporations.
Support for Trump remains high among America’s rural voters. A poll by Farm Futures found 75% of farmers surveyed in July planned to vote for Trump, compared with 73% ahead of the 2016 election. But China and trade policy aren’t hot-button issues among general voters in this year’s race, nor do they seem unlikely to play a decisive role in determining the outcome of next week’s vote in the battleground states Trump needs to prevail.
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This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.