CHICAGO — Chinese officials have said US soybeans are a prime target for retaliation against tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on steel and aluminum imports, according to the American Soybean Association.

Farm groups have long feared that China, which imports more than third of all US soybeans, could slow their purchases of agricultural products, heaping more pain on the struggling US farm sector.

Warnings to the soybean growers group about their product being used as a target in trade disputes were made last year, group officials told Reuters on Friday.

They came up in talks between the American Soybean Association’s leaders and officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington and in conversations between Chinese officials and US soybean farmers, when the farmers were on a trip to China last fall, according to the group.

“We have heard directly from the Chinese that US soybeans are prime targets for retaliation,” the trade group said in a statement. “The idea that we’re the only game in town, and these partners have no choice but to purchase from the US is flatly wrong.”

Officials declined to elaborate further. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

President Donald Trump signed executive orders last spring that called on the Department of Commerce to investigate whether imports of steel and aluminum were compromising US national security, the soybean group said.

US agriculture trade groups have sharply criticized the White House’s push to move ahead this week with import tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% for aluminum, warning that retaliatory actions could target US exports of grain and oilseeds.

China’s Ministry of Commerce last month launched an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation, potentially leading to hefty tariffs on imports of the ingredient used in livestock feed and the fiery Chinese liquor baijiu. — Reuters