WA China Watch Digest Special!

Interview: Brian Bonlender on new Chinese tariffs on Washington fruit, and U.S.-China trade war

Brian Bonlender, Mar. 28, 2018By Wen Liu   April 16, 2018

It has been more than five years since Brian Bonlender was appointed director of the Washington State Department of Commerce by Governor Jay Inslee. In addition to his more than 20 years of public- and private-sector experience, including as Congressman Inslee’s primary advisor on economic issues, from agriculture to aerospace, Bonlender has also become more and more a China hand. He led many trade activities in China in 2013 for Gov. Inslee’s visit there; he was part of the many discussions in 2015 with President Xi Jinping’s delegation; and he was at the Chinese Provinces-U.S. Washington State Trade & Investment Cooperation Forum in Seattle last summer. So how does Bonlender see China’s new tariffs on Washington apples, cherries, and the potential U.S.-China trade war? Here is Director Bonlender, answering these questions and more.

WCWD: First things first. China announced new tariffs effective April 2nd on 128 American products, including apples, cherries, and pears that Washington state produces and exports. According to AP reports, China is the top export market for Washington cherries, buying $127 million worth a year, and it also bought about $50 million worth of apples and $1.5 million worth of pears from Washington last year. So what is the position of the State Commerce Department on the new 15% taxes on Washington grown fruit to enter China market?

Brian Bonlender: Washington is one of the most trade-dependent state in the nation, and we are very concerned about the impact that China's tariffs will have on our exports. We will continue to promote bilateral trade and investment between Washington State and China. We also need to work with our trading partners and the WTO to address the issues raised by the Administration.

Bonlender Updates screenshot.There are legitimate concerns with some of China’s practices, including lack of intellectual property protection and barriers to investing in mainland China. China is not the same country it was 20 -- or even 10 -- years ago. Now that its economy has grown and evolved, expectations for its trading practices have also changed. However, I remain very concerned about the current approach by the White House. Tariffs are a blunt instrument with huge downside risks to the global economy. It’s not clear that this administration has thought these things through.

WCWD: In one of your Tweets, you said, “War is not the answer. #tradewar not easy to win, not the way to address #China trade problems. #WAJobs already at risk from aimless approach.” So what would be a better way, from your or Washington state point of view, to address China trade problems, including IP theft, forced technology transfer, unequal market access, etc.?

Brian Bonlender: Thank you for following my Tweets! The United States is certainly not the only country to find fault with China's policies that have promoted overcapacity in the aluminum and steel sectors, as well as China's approach to intellectual property. A better approach would be to work with like-minded countries and bring China to the negotiating table to reach meaningful resolutions to these issues. It is unlikely that unilateral sanctions alone will achieve this objective, and as I said, they carry big downside risks.

WCWD: You were at the very beginning of the Chinese Provinces-Washington State Trade & Investment Cooperation working group in September 2015 during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit in Seattle. You were also at the Chinese Provinces-U.S. Washington State Trade & Investment Cooperation Forum in Seattle last July. What has come out of these discussions so far?

Brian Bonlender: A number of things came out of the President Xi visit. At the third U.S. - China Governor’s Forum, we participated in a ceremony where six U.S. states and six Chinese provinces signed an agreement to collaborate on energy and carbon reduction strategies. We expect to have an update on progress made on this agreement at the fourth U.S. - China Governor’s Forum in Chengdu. In addition, we signed a cooperative agreement with Guangdong Province to collaborate on mutually beneficial economic relations.

Bonlender at China Council banquet, Mar. 28, 2018When President Xi visited in 2015, he planted a tree to commemorate the agreement between Tsinghua University and the University of Washington creating the Global Innovation Exchange, which will grant advanced degrees in technology leadership. The campus is now open, and students are travelling between Seattle and Beijing undertaking graduate studies.

After the Presidential visit there have been more than 45 delegations from Chinese ministries, provinces and municipal governments that have visited Washington. Also, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Washington, which represents China-based companies, has been established with more than 200 members, representing some of China’s largest private companies.

WCWD: You said you were going to China next month. Could you tell the readers what your trip would be about, and if it could be affected by the new “tariff war” between the U.S., on Chinese steel and aluminum, and China, on American fruit, wine and pork?

Brian Bonlender: I was hoping to go to China in May, but will be unable to do so because of scheduling considerations. I will be joining a delegation, including a number of local companies, on a long-planned mission to Japan. Unfortunately, we were not able to make China work on this trip. This decision has nothing to do with the tariff situation between the two countries.

WCWD: Last year, Governor Jay Inslee had originally planned to visit China last August. Instead, Lt. Governor Habib visited Chengdu, Sichuan, Washington’s friendship province, in September, as WCWD reported. Have you talked to the Governor lately, and what is his international travel plan like this year, especially in terms of China trade?

Brian Bonlender: By all accounts, Lt. Governor Habib did an excellent job representing the State of Washington and Governor Inslee on his trip last year. We viewed that model, collaborating with the Lt. Governor, as a success in expanding the reach of Washington State in promoting bilateral trade and investment. This year Governor Inslee has not have planned any international trips, and he is not likely to make any. Later this year, we will assess plans for 2019.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)