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BEIJING (AP) - China on Tuesday ordered importers of U.S. sorghum to pay deposits for possible higher tariffs in an anti-dumping investigation, adding to growing trade conflict with Washington.

A preliminary ruling by the Commerce Ministry said U.S. sorghum was being sold at improperly low prices, hurting Chinese farmers. It said importers must post bonds of 178.6 percent of the value of their goods to cover possible anti-dumping duties while the probe is completed.

Beijing launched the sorghum investigation on Feb. 4 in what some business people saw as a warning shot after President Donald Trump hiked tariffs on Chinese-made washing machines and solar modules.

Since then, Trump has threatened to raise duties on up to $150 billion of Chinese goods in a dispute over technology policy. Beijing has responded with its own list of U.S. goods for possible retaliation.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue fired back, saying dumping claims were "ludicrous".

“The international grain market is about the freest market there is, and it is ludicrous to even mention ‘dumping,’ because China can buy product from anywhere they choose. This is clearly a political decision by the Chinese and we reject their premise," Perdue said. "Our sorghum producers are the most competitive in the world and we do not believe there is any basis in fact for these actions."

The measures on sorghum, a grain used in animal feed and for making the fiery traditional Chinese liquor baijiu, target farm areas that voted for Trump in 2016. China is one of the biggest foreign markets for U.S. sorghum growers.

"As we explore options, we are in communication with the American sorghum industry and stand united with them," Perdue said.

Investigators concluded dumping of U.S. sorghum "substantially damaged" Chinese competitors, the Commerce Ministry said. It said prices of U.S. sorghum fell 13 percent from 2013 to 2017, while shipments increased 14-fold.

"The fact remains that China has engaged in unfair trade practices over decades and President Trump is correct in holding them accountable. We remain committed to protecting American agricultural producers in the face of retaliatory measures by the Chinese,” Perdue said.

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