Can Mississippi farmers navigate the path of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in China policy?

Published 12:53 pm Tuesday, October 26, 2021

President Joseph Biden’s recent rhetoric that suggested the U.S. would defend Taiwan from attack by the People’s Republic of China caused both the White House and U.S. State Department to walk back and redefine the president’s remarks quickly.

Biden’s strong statements on behalf of Taiwan seemed to directly contradict the longtime U.S. policy regarding relations between the U.S., China, and Taiwan – an approach described as “strategic ambiguity” in which the U.S. frames their stated support for Taiwan in a calibrated way designed not to provoke China or embolden Taiwan to act against each other. “Strategic ambiguity” also allows the U.S. to maintain the ability to morph between new Sino-Taiwan developments while retaining the core posture.

In essence, since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the U.S. avoided comments about direct intervention between Taiwan and China. That despite pledging tacit support of the Taiwan government. At least, that was the way of things before Xi Jinping led the People’s Republic.

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After Biden’s recent remarks, the White House quickly issued a revised version of U.S. policy, which matched the more traditional position.

“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the source said.

Xi Jinping has ramped up his own “One China” rhetoric and Chinese excursions into the Straights of Taiwan have become bolder and more frequent. That action is seen as a drive to unify China and assert the regional and global hegemony of China under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

So, what’s all that diplomatic posturing have to do with Mississippi farmers?

China is the third leading trading partner for Mississippi exports behind Canada and Mexico, with $759 million in value in 2020 – with that number representing a 63.8% increase over the previous year. After the 2018-2019 tariffs standoff between China and the Trump administration, that growth led to hundreds of millions in lost export revenues to Mississippi producers.

A 2020 study by Business Roundtable found that international trade supported 326,200 Mississippi jobs in 2018. The same study found that in 2018, trade with China supported 64,000 Mississippi jobs – which highlighted the need for China to abide by the commitments under the “phase one” trade agreements.

Why should this matter to Mississippians? As noted in an earlier column regarding China’s global rise, the nation’s path to superpower status is blocked most readily by its struggle to produce enough food to feed its own 1.4 billion population and influence and alleviate regional concerns over hunger and food insecurity.

China has been able in recent years to produce rice and wheat sufficient to meet the nation’s needs but still must import soybeans and corn as feedstuffs adequate to satisfy the population’s growing taste for meat.

Not only is China’s massive population problematic in producing hunger and food insecurity issues, but pollution, water aquifer depletion, and the impacts of climate change are also threatening future internal abilities to feed that nation and her allies. The loyalty of regional neighbor nations dependent on food aid also remains in the balance moving forward.

In reaction to the U.S.-China trade standoff, Mississippi (along with Indiana, Illinois, and Nebraska) in 2019 cut a trade deal with Taiwan to import about $2 billion in soybeans and corn in 2020 and 2021.

But before the trade war, about 80 percent of Mississippi’s soybean production was being sold to China. Under Biden, initial reports are that China is living up to most of its pledges on the “phase one” trade deal. That deal called for China to buy $12.5 billion.

How vital is global trade with China? At the cost of $270 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging the lower Mississippi River along the final 250-mile stretch to the Gulf of Mexico to take the river’s depth from 45 feet to 50 feet, which will enable ships to carry 2.9 million bushels of soybeans rather than the present 2.4 million bushels per ship. That change alone is projected to bring an additional annual $461 billion in sales to the U.S. soybean industry.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at