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Trade tensions

China throws grit into gears of US exporters

Apples, timber and autos taking longer to clear customs amid trade friction

Containers stacked at a Shanghai port. Chinese authorities claim to have found pests in US apples and logs.   © AP

BEIJING -- China appears to be quietly targeting American exports by slowing customs checks for fruit, logs and automobiles as trade tension builds -- a tactic it has been accused of employing before in response to bilateral tensions.

Quarantine checks have been tightened after pests were found in U.S. apples and wood at major ports including Shanghai, Shenzhen, Qingdao and Xiamen, the Chinese General Administration of Customs said.

Slowed approval processes have reportedly hit other American agricultural products as well. Tianjin customs authorities claim to have found genetically modified dairy cattle feed not approved for domestic use among U.S. shipments, meaning that such feed is likely to face longer checks.

China is targeting U.S. agricultural goods because American farm states provided much of Donald Trump's votes in his run for the White House. Hitting this leading American export industry could shake the president's support going into November's midterm congressional elections.

Beijing has lined up such targets as soybeans and aircraft for economic retaliation in case Washington makes good on its tariff threats, aiming to rattle lawmakers from producer states. Slowing down customs appears meant to add to the intimidation.

Certain foreign-branded automobiles assembled at U.S. plants are taking longer to pass Chinese customs, by some reports. Inspections to make sure the vehicles meet Chinese quality and safety standards are being performed with extra care, according to people familiar with the situation, raising the possibility of delays in supplies to dealerships in the country.

In 2010, China's exports of rare-earth metals to Japan stalled and stricter inspections slowed customs in general after a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China as the Diaoyu. China denied holding up exports of the minerals, which include key ingredients in magnets for precision motors.

Chinese authorities are widely believed to be involved in making trouble for foreign businesses when diplomatic relations sour. Large-scale anti-Japan protests erupted in China in 2012 as their island spat flared up. Last year, Chinese consumers bashed South Korean companies and products online amid tensions over the U.S. military's deployment of a missile shield. Hyundai Motor became a victim of this backlash.

The U.S. and China remain far apart on trade, with Washington demanding that Beijing take steps to cut the trade deficit and Beijing seeking relief from restrictions on American technology exports to China. Tightening customs inspections likely constitutes an effort by Beijing to seek the upper hand in trade talks, an executive at a multinational said.

China has also recently demanded that American and other airlines refer online to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau in terms that comply with the mainland government's standards -- a warning it enforced against Marriott International, fast-fashion brand Zara and others earlier this year.

The White House replied that Trump "will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens."

Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here, countered that "foreign enterprises operating in China should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, abide by China's law and respect the national sentiment of the Chinese people."

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