DECATUR — The leaders of Decatur's largest employer on Monday were keeping a hopeful eye on upcoming U.S. trade talks in China this week as the White House moved to avoid the potential for a trade battle with Europe.
Members of President Donald Trump's administration are set to visit Beijing on Thursday and Friday for negotiations before the countries enact hundreds of billions of dollars of tariffs against one another. Chinese officials said in March that they would levy additional tariffs against U.S. imports including automobiles, chemicals, aircraft and soybeans.
Executives from Archer Daniels Midland Co., the global food processing and commodities trading corporation with more than 4,000 employees in Decatur, said Monday that they were hopeful the talks were just posturing by Trump to establish what he considers fair trade.
“You know Mr. Trump likes to make that bold statement, and then I think he anchors there and then sets the stage for discussion,” said Todd A. Werpy, senior vice president and chief technology officer for ADM, speaking at a Decatur event to celebrate the company's progress with DowDuPont on developing a new kind of plastic derived from corn.
“But yeah, in the short-term, it’s going to have an impact, and it’s going to have impact things on both sides of the equation, things we export and things we import. But I don’t think anyone is going to make any rash decisions in the near term until everyone sees how this settles out."
The United States has threatened to impose tariffs on $150 billion of Chinese goods in retaliation for what it argues are Beijing's unfair trade practices and its requirement that U.S. companies turn over technology in exchange for access to its market. The White House also wants China to agree to reduce its $375 billion goods trade surplus with the U.S.
China has said it would subject $50 billion of U.S. goods to tariffs if the U.S. taxes its products.
Farms in Central Illinois and across the country could especially be hurt by the Chinese tariffs. American farm exports to China in 2017 totaled nearly $20 billion, including $1.1 billion of pork products. One out of every three soybeans grown in the U.S. is exported to China, and Illinois is the top soybean-producing state in the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, acknowledged "there is alarm" about the possibility of Chinese tariffs, but said China does not "trade fair."
“The (President Donald Trump) administration, I hope, will be able to work in a very bilateral fashion to avoid what the negative impact will be, especially to our farmers here in Central Illinois,” said Davis, also speaking at the Decatur event. “But we also have to make sure that China needs to trade fair in all aspects.”
Greg Webb, vice president of government relations, referred questions to the company’s previous statement on the matter. But as a whole, Webb said the company loves free trade.
“And anything that impairs that, we’re not so happy about,” he said. “But we think about tariffs a lot, because it does affect markets.”
Also on Monday, the White House said it would postpone a decision on imposing tariffs on U.S. imports of steel and aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico for 30 days.
The Trump administration said it had reached an agreement with South Korea on steel imports following discussions on a revised trade agreement, the outlines of which were previously announced by U.S. and South Korean officials. And the administration said it had also reached agreements in principle with Argentina, Australia and Brazil on steel and aluminum that will be finalized shortly.
Announcing the trade actions, the White House said "in all of these negotiations, the administration is focused on quotas that will restrain imports, prevent transshipment and protect the national security."
Facing a self-imposed deadline, President Donald Trump was considering whether to permanently exempt the EU and Mexico, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil from tariffs that his administration imposed last month on imported steel and aluminum. The White House provided temporary exemptions in March and had until the end of Monday to decide whether to extend them.
The EU has said if it loses its exemption it will retaliate with its own tariffs on U.S. goods imported to Europe.
The confrontation stems from the president's decision in March to slap tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum. Trump justified the action by saying it was needed to protect American metal producers from unfair competition and bolster national security. But the announcement, which followed an intense internal White House debate, triggered harsh criticism from Democrats and some Republicans and roiled financial markets.
At the time, Trump excluded several vital trading partners — the European Union, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil — from the tariffs.
That meant the steel tariff covered just 30 percent of all imports, according to Oxford Economics. If all the exemptions were ended, it would have deepened the impact of the tariffs on American companies that use steel and potentially affect financial markets. Stock prices fell nearly 2 percent when the tariffs were announced.
The EU and others had been asked to spell out what limits they could accept on the amount of steel they export to the United States, how they would address the issue of excess production of steel and aluminum and how they would support the U.S. before international bodies like the World Trade Organization. Security relationships with the U.S. have also been part of the criteria.
South Korea agreed to limit its exports to the United States as part of broader discussions involved in updating its bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. and was granted a permanent exemption.
China, Japan and Russia haven't received exemptions from the duties. That will likely reduce steel shipments from those countries over time. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said late Friday that quotas on imports from Europe and other countries are necessary so imports from those countries don't simply replace Chinese imports. The goal of the tariffs is to reduce total steel imports and boost U.S. production, Ross said.
"If you let everybody back out of the tariff, and you let them out of any kind of quota, how would you ever reduce the imports here?" Ross asked at a conference of business journalists. Ross is set to discuss the issue Monday with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
The Associated Press contributed to this report