Let's hope Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman knows what she's talking about. Speaking at a press conference at the end of a trip to China, Veneman said Chinese officials gave “broad assurances” they will comply with World Trade Organization rules.

Chinese compliance has become a glaring issue since it joined the WTO last December. In June, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick complained China was not honoring its promises to raise import quotas on corn and wheat and was continuing to provide export subsidies to its producers.

It was the first official warning that the administration was unhappy with China's progress on wheat and corn tariff rate quotas and on China's new rules on GMO soybean imports and export subsidies for cotton.

Veneman said she broached those subjects during three days of meetings that ended July 30 with officials from China's Ministries of Agriculture, Trade and Science and Technology and with the State Planning Commission and AQSIQ, the quarantine and inspection agency.

If that sounds like a lot of agencies, it's part of the overall problem in dealing with China. Veneman said USDA officials had counted six ministries that have an interest in GMO soybeans alone.

“It's a challenge to try to find where some of these issues are being decided,” she said, adding that identifying who can make a decision issue was a major accomplishment of the mission. “We have received assurances from those that the biotech regulations will not be implemented in a way that will impede our trade in soybeans, and trade will not be disrupted.

“We also received assurances that China will fully implement the tariff rate quotas in accordance with the WTO agreement. Certainly that's something that was of concern to us, but we have received those assurances.”

Veneman is no stranger to China, having made three previous trips while serving as associate administrator of USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service and deputy undersecretary of agriculture for international affairs and commodity programs in the late 1980s.

Her previous exposure to the Chinese labyrinth of ministries and state agencies may be why she insisted the two countries set up a working group to help resolve the issues related to biotechnology regulation. Joseph Jen, USDA'S undersecretary for research, education and economics, will lead the U.S. side in a review of the science issues involved in biotechnology and other trade disputes.

Veneman said U.S. and Chinese officials did not resolve the matter of China's exporting cotton for below the world price and for less than what it is selling in China. “As you know, China agreed not to use export subsidies for cotton and corn, and we need to make sure that, as WTO commitments are implemented, that is in fact the case,” she said.

In her comments, Veneman seemed to be approaching the 900-pound gorilla that is the Chinese market gingerly but with no signs of backing down from a confrontation.

“We think it is important to work together, but we also believe it's extremely important to emphasize how critical it is that the Chinese understand how to play by the rules, and we need to help them do that.”

flaws@primediabusiness.com