As China looks to diversify its soybean supply away from the United States, Commerce Minister Zhong Shan agreed with Russian counterparts to “deepen trade in soybeans and other agricultural products” during a meeting this week.
Zhong, a recent addition to Beijing’s negotiating team in trade war talks with Washington, met with the Russian minister for economic development Maxim Oreshkin on Tuesday to discuss ways in which the two countries could increase bilateral trade, according to a statement released by China’s Commerce Ministry on Thursday.
The meeting came after President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to increase bilateral trade from US$107 billion in 2018 to US$200 billion a year during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.
At an investment forum in Moscow last year, Putin said that Russia would increase its production and export of soybeans to China in a bid to fill the gap in the market left by the US.
China has virtually halted the import of soybeans from its biggest supplier, the US, after imposing 25 per cent tariffs on soybean imports in retaliation to American tariffs on Chinese goods.
Despite this, Russian soybean exports to China actually decreased between September and May, according to Russian customs data. Over the same period in 2017 and 2018, Russia sold 690,000 tonnes to China, compared to 580,000 tonnes this season, said UKR-Agro Consult, a Ukrainian agricultural research house.
This may be as a result of the African swine fever outbreak across China, which has dampened soybean demand, since the bulk of its imports are used in animal feed. Researchers at Rabobank have forecast that due to disease or cull, China could lose 200 million pigs this year.
Even before the African swine fever crisis, however, Russia’s exports to China were less than 10 per cent of the decrease in US soybean sales to China over the past 10 months, which the US Soybean Export Council this week estimated to be 19.2 million tonnes.
Even in the long run, it is almost impossible for Russian soybeans to replace American soybeans
He Yuxin, a soybean analyst at Sublime China Information, a Shandong-based provider of data to the Chinese commodity market, said that “even in the long run, it is almost impossible for Russian soybeans to replace American soybeans”.
“Russian soybeans are enjoying a privilege at the moment, as China has imposed tariffs on US soybeans. Once the tariffs are lifted in the future, however, China will choose American soybeans, because there will not be any big difference in price. Currently, Russia's soybean output is even less than China's.”
Russia’s relatively minor position in the soybean market has not stopped some Russian exporters from trying to capitalise. Rusagro, a Russian agricultural exporter, shipped its first bulk vessel of soybeans to China this week, according to a Reuters report. The shipment arrived in Nantong from Vladivostok on Tuesday having been bought by COFCO Trading, China’s state-owned agricultural behemoth.
Meanwhile, in an interview earlier in July, Sergey Mikhailov, the CEO of Russia’s largest meat producer, Cherkizovo Group, said the company would soon start shipping pork and soybeans to China, having recently started selling poultry to Chinese buyers.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “for 2018/19, sales and shipments of US soybeans to China are drastically low, but they are taking place”.
“This month, US soybean exports for 2019/20 are lowered from 53.1 million tonnes to 51.0 million despite near-record supplies,” read a USDA report, released last week. “The reduction is driven by a sharp cut to US soybean production by 8.3 million tonnes to 104.6 million due to difficult planting conditions. These factors, paired with large Brazilian supplies and uncertainties over China’s demand caused by the outbreak of African swine fever and the trade tensions, will continue to fuel market uncertainty.”
China, meanwhile, has also been attempting to increase its domestic production of soybeans. In a report released on Monday, the National Bureau of Statistics said that in the first half of 2019, “the structure of crop farming was further optimised, as planting areas for cotton and soybeans increased”.
A report by China’s National Grain and Oils Information Centre, released last week, estimated that this year's soybean yield will be the highest on record, the same as the 17.4 million tonnes in 2004.
In September, Russia made 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of arable land available to foreign investors, with a senior Russian official saying that he expected “most of the investment to come from China”.
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