Former Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, now president of Food Distributors International (FDI), this week joined seven other former secretaries in urging support of the Clinton Administration's proposal to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to the People's Republic of China.

The statement of support for this action was issued by former Secretaries Bob Bergland, Earl Butz, Orville Freeman, Mike Espy, Clifford Hardin, Richard Lyng and Clayton Yeutter.

"Only by passing PNTR will we be able to reap the benefits-economic and otherwise-of China's imminent accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO)," their statement said.

The statement pointed out that with a population of more than 1.2 billion people, a rapidly growing middle class and an economy that is growing at a 7 percent annual rate, "there is no nation that offers a greater potential customer base for American businesses."

"American farmers and ranchers, in particular, need to do more business with China," the secretaries said. "While the rest of the nation has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, agriculture is facing its third consecutive year of low prices and economic sluggishness." They noted that U.S. agriculture is twice as dependent on exports as other sectors of the economy, that trade barriers mean that the Chinese people are unable to benefit from American agricultural goods and that the American farmer is unable to benefit from that potential marketplace.

With membership in the WTO, the statement said, "Our farmers could take advantage of dramatically reduced Chinese tariffs on everything from frozen beef cuts to cherries and peaches. They could do business with private individuals in China, without the interference of a state-trading entity. And our farmers could compete on a level playing field, since China will abandon export subsidies and eliminate unjustified sanitary and phytosanitary barriers as conditions of WTO entry."

By rejecting PNTR, other global competitors will be permitted to put American business at a disadvantage. "We would be walking away from an increase of approximately $2 billion in annual farm export sales," the statement said. "It would amount to a kind of unilateral economic disarmament."

Earlier in the month, EXBTV.COM carried a discussion/debate of the China PNTR issue between Block and Thea Lee, assistant director for international economics in the AFL-CIO public policy department.
During the April 4 debate - still available for Web viewing through - Block said that positive changes in China are more likely to improve through economic engagement than they would otherwise.

He noted that, as secretary of agriculture, he negotiated successful trade deals with the former Soviet Union, then dubbed by President Reagan as "The Evil Empire."

"We feel that through commerce and trade, China will change," Block told EXBTV.COM.