Ted McKinney held a press conference for U.S. reporters by phone from China during the midst of the U.S.-China trade standoff in late May. McKinney is USDA undersecretary for trade, and while not directly involved in trade negotiations at the highest levels, he was aware of the situation involving tariffs. He understood the irony of talking about a successful trade mission while at the time, it appeared that U.S. and China trade prospects could fall apart at any moment.
“We began planning this trade mission last October, before tensions over trade developed,” McKinney explained. “Trade missions to various countries are part of our responsibility in USDA, and my responsibility in this newly created position. There are things we need to do at our level to ensure that trade can continue fairly.”
While the purpose of his press conference was to report on the success of the trade mission, he couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
“The best way to describe my view on the overall trade situation with China is that I am very cautiously optimistic,” McKinney said. “More talks appear to be coming soon. Yes, we’ve been here before, and anything can happen. That’s why I insist on including the phrase ‘very cautiously optimistic’ about the future for trade with China, particularly as it relates to agricultural products.”
McKinney’s cautious optimism flows partly from what he observed while leading the trade mission that included representatives from 24 U.S. companies. The mission was at the halfway point when he spoke to reporters, and they had already met with 100 Chinese businesspeople and held 180 meetings among various participants on the trip.
“There is still keen interest in China for anything related to food and fiber,” McKinney said. “There is interest in a wide range of commodities and products, from swine to UHT [ultrahigh-temperature processing] milk to ginseng to cosmetics.
“It was wonderful to see the reception from Chinese businessmen to U.S. products. It is clear to us that they recognize the safety, quality and ability to deliver in large quantities that U.S. companies offer in products.
“Again, though, I must say I’m very cautiously optimistic. What happens with this interest depends on ongoing trade talks at the highest level.”
The trade mission concentrated on southern China, visiting Guangzhou, where McKinney spoke from, and then Shenzhen, a city to the east of Guangzhou.
While the U.S. delegation was visiting, the SIAL food show began in China. “It’s a huge food show, and we were able to help open the U.S. exhibit at the show,” McKinney said. “The U.S. had a very large exhibit of companies there. It was a reminder that the interest in trade remains high if the details can be worked out.”
This trade mission follows on the heels of trade missions to India and Guatemala, McKinney said. He noted that the most recent mission to Central America set a record for projected trade business with U.S. companies during the 12 months after the visit. That’s based on projections from government agencies, he said.
McKinney, a native of Tipton, Ind., most recently served as director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture before accepting his current USDA position.