New England’s signature lobster and cranberry industries may end up waiting weeks or months before finding out if the much celebrated trade truce with China announced in Washington this week will help them reverse the damage they suffered during a lengthy trade war.
The agreement, signed Wednesday by President Trump, calls for China to buy $200 billion worth of goods from the United States — including agricultural products and seafood — while the two countries continue discussions on a broader trade deal. But the deal also left in place the tariffs from the trade war. For the lobster and cranberry industries, the 25 percent additional tariff from China resulted in them losing millions of dollars in sales to a key export market that was growing at the time the hostilities started.
So while they await clarity on how much of their products China will buy, some expressed frustration about the lack of immediate relief.
“My customers didn’t sit around waiting for the last 18 months to get some resolution to this,” said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of the Lobster Co. in Arundel, Maine, an international wholesaler. “They went and found themselves another supplier.”
As yet, Nadeau said, there is no sign of increased interest from Chinese buyers. Normally, this would be a huge week for shipments to that country, where lobsters figure prominently in festivities for the Lunar New Year holiday, on Jan. 25.
Patrick Rhodes, brand manager for the family-owned cranberry producer Edgewood Bogs LLC/ Cape Cod Select, in Carver, said that China had been a significant area of growth for his business. So he views the truce as a sign of progress.
“The fact that it’s headed in a more positive direction is obviously going to be good,” he said. “There’s always a question of whether it’s going to get worse. And we’re not seeing that.”
Ultimately, Rhodes is hoping for a deal in which China drops the tariffs entirely. With China beginning to produce cranberries itself, he said, it’s important for the prices of US products to be competitive.
US Representative William R. Keating, a Democrat who represents Southeastern Massachusetts, said the agreement does not alleviate the uncertainty that the trade war has created. He said the cranberry industry is an example of a problem many other businesses have faced.
“You can’t have a growing season in two to three months. That has to be planned years ahead of time. You need to have financing ahead of time,” he said. “When you have uncertainty, you can’t make those business decisions.”
But it will take time before the impact of the limited trade deal will be clear. And it could be a year or more before the United States and China hammer out a more substantial pact that might result in the permanent change to the tariffs.
Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College who follows China closely, said he doesn’t think Trump will act soon to take US tariffs off the table, which might spur China to do the same.
“I think this is a long-term process, and he does not show any interest in rapidly removing the tariffs,” he said.
Ross added there are many unanswered questions about how the deal so far will play out. China committed to take $200 billion in US exports over two years, including $32 billion in agricultural products and seafood.
But it did not say what specific products it would buy, Ross said. The trade war affected many corners of industry, and he said it’s possible that much of that agricultural spending could go toward other major US exports, such as soybeans.
Also unresolved, Ross said, is whether China will make similar commitments if the two-year period ends with no further agreement, and how the remaining tariffs might affect exports.
In a brief statement, the Office of the US Trade Representative, which oversaw the negotiations, said China “will need to ensure that its retaliatory tariffs do not impact its purchase commitments.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in a statement that she’s confident the deal will benefit the trade organization’s members.
“It is clear that concerns about harm to lobster exports as a result of US trade policy have been heard at the highest levels of our government,” she said. “Securing expanded access for lobster in China’s growing import market is huge progress and will provide significant economic opportunity for Maine’s lobster industry.”
Others around New England say that even if the deal works out, it will be hard to recover from the past year-and-a-half. The Canadian lobster industry has been filling the gap both in China and in Europe, where the United States is also attempting to negotiate a new trade deal.
“The administration may have negotiated a better deal, but if you lost everything you had in the meantime, what benefit does a better deal get you?” said state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Democrat from the fishing industry center of Gloucester.
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.