China launched an anti-dumping probe on pork imports from the European Union, in a narrowly targeted measure that’s the latest move in simmering trade tensions between Beijing and Brussels.

China is the EU’s biggest overseas market for pork, although export volumes have fallen off in recent years due to domestic oversupply and low prices. The trade was worth $1.83 billion last year, with farmers in Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands the biggest beneficiaries.

Still, it’s a tiny portion of overall trade with the bloc. China imported $282 billion worth of goods from the EU last year, according to official data. 

The probe — which the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said began on Monday — will be viewed as Beijing’s counter to similar investigations being conducted by the EU, which is looking at Chinese subsidies across a range of industries and will impose tariffs on electric car imports from July. In January, China announced an anti-dumping investigation into European brandy.

The European Commission is analyzing China’s probe and will “intervene as appropriate to ensure that the investigation fully complies” with World Trade Organization rules, spokesman Olof Gill said in Brussels.

China had been expected to adopt limited and targeted retaliation against the EU following the bloc’s latest move, with Beijing wary that a more robust response could backfire. While retaliation may help dissuade further trade-protection moves around the world, the danger for Beijing is that a too-strong response would encourage further trans-Atlantic alignment against China — cutting against President Xi Jinping’s efforts to encourage “strategic autonomy” in Europe.

China’s Response

In the days since the EU’s decision on EVs, Beijing has been highly critical and continued to accuse the bloc of protectionism.

China’s top economic planning body National Development and Reform Commission published three consecutive commentaries criticizing the EU and calling its actions “weaponizing” and “politicizing” trade. In one of the pieces, it noted that some European car brands — such as Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz — have over 30% of their sales in China.

For now, it’s difficult to assess what the fallout of the investigation will be. Still, potential Chinese restrictions on European meat would hit Denmark’s meat industry “incredibly hard,” said Ulrik Bremholm, deputy chairman of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. He urged all parties involved to consider the consequences for jobs and food security.

“Trade wars are not good for anyone and especially in relation to agri-food products,” Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas told journalists in Madrid on Monday. He added that he hopes tariffs can be avoided and that he’ll “do everything” to avoid a trade war.

“There must be direct dialogue with China to ensure that all this affects us as little as possible,” said Pedro Matarranz, who oversees the pork sector at Spanish farmers union UPA.

Agriculture is often fertile ground for trade conflicts — especially for products where there are other suppliers for the good that domestic buyers can switch to. China imposed levies on US soybean imports at the height of the trade war with the Trump administration. Its recent dispute with Canberra involved trade measures against Australian barley, beef, cotton and lobsters, as well as wine.

In the case of Australian barley and wine, China was a key destination for exports so the tariffs imposed were damaging, but Chinese buyers were able to find other suppliers. The country can also get pork supplies from elsewhere, either domestically or overseas. And now that Chinese tariffs on Australian wine have been lifted, that could replace European bottles if it gets locked out.

EU Pork Trade

Ahead of Beijing’s announcement Monday, Chinese pork demand was already waning amid a slowing domestic economy and strong recovery in the nation’s pig herd. The EU’s pork exports to China had already dropped 16% year-on-year in the first two months of 2024.

Earlier this year, Europe’s largest pork producer Danish Crown A/S said it plans to shift to more consumer-facing businesses, such as ready meals in Europe, as exports to China become less competitive.

France recently sealed a deal on pork and wine sales to China. The country is the leading destination for French pork exports, according to industry association Inaporc, which said it’s following the investigation closely.