China tiff about more than trade, economist says


PULLMAN, Wash. — More observers are beginning to realize the U.S.-China trade war isn’t about trade but who controls the world, says a retired Washington State University agricultural economist who once headed a USDA-sponsored China study group.

The U.S. has the economic power to win its trade war with China but lacks the political perseverance, and trade between the two countries is unlikely to improve in the next two years, says Desmond O’Rourke, now a private consultant and apple analyst.

O’Rourke first went to China in 1980 and visited often as director of WSU’s IMPACT Center for international marketing in the 1990s. He worked with members of the Washington Council on International Trade, the Washington China Relations Council and the World Affairs Council on China.

At WSU, O’Rourke set up a USDA-sponsored China study group that included economists from the U.S., Canada and Europe. It’s now an official interest group within the American Applied Economic Association, the national body for agricultural economists.

As a private consultant, O’Rourke issued special studies on China in 2002, 2004 and 2013 and studied the Chinese produce distribution system for Produce Marketing Association.

When the Washington apple industry was excited about full varietal access to China in 2015, O’Rourke warned China was “extremely unreliable” and might not be the panacea it appeared for apples, citrus, nuts, hay, beef and a host of other commodities.

Those commodities hurt by current tariffs, including apples and cherries, can expect little to no relief for the next two years as President Donald Trump holds firm and China simply waits for his presidency to end, whether that’s two or six years, O’Rourke, who turned 80 Dec. 15, said.

China might say some positive things or begin to buy soybeans again, as it is now when it needs them, but it says one thing and does another, he said.