China says U.S. soybeans 'prime target' over tariffs: trade group

FILE PHOTO: Soybeans are seen in a field waiting to be harvested in Minooka, Illinois, September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chinese officials have said U.S. soybeans are a prime target for retaliation against tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on steel and aluminum imports, according to the American Soybean Association.

Farm groups have long feared that China, which imports more than third of all U.S. soybeans, could slow their purchases of agricultural products, heaping more pain on the struggling U.S. farm sector.

Warnings to the soybean growers group about their product being used as a target in trade disputes were made last year, group officials told Reuters on Friday.

They came up in talks between the American Soybean Association’s leaders and officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington and in conversations between Chinese officials and U.S. soybean farmers, when the farmers were on a trip to China last fall, according to the group.

“We have heard directly from the Chinese that U.S. soybeans are prime targets for retaliation,” the trade group said in a statement. “The idea that we’re the only game in town, and these partners have no choice but to purchase from the U.S. is flatly wrong.”

Officials declined to elaborate further. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

President Donald Trump signed executive orders last spring that called on the Department of Commerce to investigate whether imports of steel and aluminum were compromising U.S. national security, the soybean group said.

U.S. agriculture trade groups have sharply criticized the White House’s push to move ahead this week with import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent for aluminum, warning that retaliatory actions could target U.S. exports of grain and oilseeds.

China’s Ministry of Commerce last month launched an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation, potentially leading to hefty tariffs on imports of the ingredient used in livestock feed and the fiery Chinese liquor baijiu.

Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown