Civics: This Iowa city forged an unusual friendship with China and its president. Then came the soybean tariffs.

Jeanne Whalen:

This spring, residents of this Mississippi River city published a book celebrating three decades of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who first visited as a regional official in 1985 to learn about modern farming practices.

That visit, and one Xi made in 2012, helped forge a relationship that turned China into a major consumer of Iowa’s agricultural exports. It also turned Muscatine into a pilgrimage site for Chinese officials and tourists wanting to meet the people Xi refers to as “old friends.”

So it was with some surprise that, a few months after the book’s publication, Muscatine watched Xi respond to a trade war with the United States by slapping steep tariffs on one of Iowa’s biggest exports: soybeans.

The tariffs caused a 20 percent drop in the price of U.S. soybeans and the first serious strain in a decades-long alliance on which U.S. farmers and Chinese consumers have come to rely. Local farmers say they understand the White House’s desire to challenge China on trade issues, but they worry that they will lose their grip on an export market developed through years of citizen diplomacy.

“I grow a lot of food, and they have a lot of people who need to eat. The tariffs are bad for both of us,” said Tom Watson, who grows corn and soybeans a short drive from Muscatine.