Ted McKinney (left), Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture speaks to reporters after his speech Sept. 24 at the Global Trade Forum at the United Fresh Washington Conference. ( Tom Karst )

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Defending the Trump administration’s trade agenda but warning that friction with China may not end soon, top USDA trade official Ted McKinney said the administration is hopeful Canada will approve an updated trade agreement.

McKinney was the keynote speaker at the United Fresh Washington Conference Global Trade Forum on Sept. 24.

McKinney, USDA Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, reminded the audience that the U.S. Trade Representative, not the USDA, leads the administration’s trade negotiations.

He cited the Sept. 24 news that the U.S. and South Korea have signed a revised version of the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Known as the KORUS, the agreement tweaks a 2012 agreement but leaves out any big changes to agricultural trade terms.

By and large, McKinney said most of agriculture is already enjoying a good trading relationship with South Korea.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s handshake trade agreement with the U.S. is another sign of progress for the Trump trade agenda, he said.

“We’re very grateful that Mexico you stepped up, and we remain very hopeful that our friends in Canada will also sign on to a new NAFTA 2.0,” he said. “I do believe we’re going to get there in part because we have to, but in part because I think there is this earnestness in getting there, so I don’t know if it’s tomorrow or this week or next week. But I am an optimist and believe we’ll get there sometime soon.”

McKinney said the Trump administration wants to preserve trade with the United Kingdom even as it prepares to leave the European Union.

“We want to be there as a longstanding trade partner like we have for decades,” he said.

McKinney said he isn’t optimistic about a quick solution to the trade tensions between China and the U.S.

“We’ve talked about tariff and non-tariff (trade) barriers in China and until we hear somebody say, ‘Okay, I will not steal your technology anymore. I will not force your companies to turn over intellectual property.’ It might be a while,” he said.

Responding to a question from the audience about Trump’s apparent preference for bilateral trade deals instead of multilateral deals, McKinney said there is more than one way to create successful agreements.

“I am not here to guess whether it’s going to be multi-lateral, trilateral or bilateral,” he said, though he acknowledged a pathway toward more bilateral deals.

“I’ll take whichever one — I just want to get on with it,” he said.

McKinney reminded exporters that developing countries all over the world offer opportunities for U.S. commodities.

“Folks, there’s trade to be had with the whole rest of the world,” he said, noting a recent positive ag trade mission to Guatemala.

All in all, he believes agricultural trade will expand with Trump policies in coming years.

“I’m not wildly, crazily, optimistic, but I am bullish that I think we’re going to get there,” he said. “We’re going to have to work through some trade issues that are going to be tough... but the world needs a whole lot more what you folks are producing.”