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Trade distortion and protectionism

Trump tariffs risk global trade war

Published 18 June 2024

Donald Trump has promised more tariffs if re-elected – 60% against Chinese goods, 10% against products from the rest of the world. This approach is not just America First; it is America Alone. The indiscriminate imposition of tariffs would no longer be confined to a trade war with China, if that is where the United States is headed, but a war against trade itself.

Former President Donald Trump has promised more tariffs if reelected, 60% against Chinese goods, 10% against products from the rest of the world. These are in addition to the tariffs he imposed during his time in office and presumably on top of some noteworthy tariffs added to by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., including the 100% tariff on Chinese-made electric vehicles (EVs). China was considered a strategic competitor under the former Trump administration's National Security Strategy; other countries were not. Into this "rest of the world" category fit allies, neighbors, and just innocent bystanders.

Why 10%? Why all countries? There is no other reasonable explanation than that Trump considers all trade to be "unfair" in some respect, or at least disadvantageous.

This isn’t normally the way presidents act when it comes to tariffs. Additional tariffs are generally imposed very selectively, under trade remedy statutes crafted by Congress. They are actions taken pursuant to a finding that a particular product is involved in a specified unfair trade act, or it may be that the new tariff is a surgical retaliatory measure to open a market for a specified American product.

Many uncertainties surround Trump’s proposals.

We don’t know why 10% was chosen or why it would remain at 10% once imposed, but we do take Trump at his word on tariff matters—think about his fulfilling his pledge on day one of his time in office to withdraw the United States from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated by President Barack Obama with Asia Pacific countries. He also already applied tariffs at a level of his choosing, first to steel and aluminum imports, and then to most imports from China, which netted out to 19%, a third of what he is promising now.

But didn’t President Biden just put on massive tariffs on Chinese goods? It is true he kept his predecessor’s blanket China tariff and then added some very high selective tariffs of his own. The new Biden tariffs place 50% tariffs on semiconductor imports from China. But that trade is modest, just under $1 billion a year. This compares with US chip imports from all sources that amount to about $6 billion each month.

The number of Chinese EVs being imported into the United States is even harder to detect (most press articles on the new tariffs on EVs contain no data), but only about 2,000 of these vehicles entered the United States from China in 2024 Q1. The EV tariff is a pre-emptive strike against these imports, not because they caused injury to the domestic automobile industry, but because they might prevent the industry being served by domestic American companies. The 100% tariff could be circumvented. Transplants could come in, but the United States, as opposed to France, has not put out the welcome mat for Chinese car investment. The bottom line is this new Biden measure affects $18 billion in trade coverage at present, as compared with total US merchandise imports of $3.826 trillion in 2023.

There is no reason to assume that the US tariff would not be met with additional foreign tariffs. The European Union, Canada, and Mexico retaliated immediately when Trump put on the steel and aluminum tariffs in 2018. Does the United States then go another round of escalating tariffs at that point? Or does it all get sorted out, as it did pretty much in that case? Even so, it is high stakes game, and what is at stake is the health of the US economy and that of the rest of the world.

The indiscriminate imposition of tariffs would no longer be confined to a trade war with China, if that is where the United States is headed, but a war against trade itself. It is time to remember some largely forgotten economic history. Fifty years ago, in 1970 when the Congress was considering import quota legislation, trade speeches were larded with allusions to the dangers of Smoot-Hawley level tariffs and "beggar-thy-neighbor" policies. Everyone knew then what those terms meant. The 1930 Tariff Act was a bidding war of members of Congress trying to give import protection to their constituents. The Congress, which under Article I of the US Constitution has authority over commerce, raised tariffs on imports to an average of 47%. This caused immediate retaliation from about a dozen countries, including Canada and Mexico. A year later, Great Britain abandoned its free trade policy, authorizing its Board of Trade to impose tariffs of up to 100% of value. The Board imposed tariffs of up to 50% immediately. Economists agree that high tariffs broadened and deepened the Great Depression, when US unemployment reached 25% and we nearly lost our democracy.

These are not yet the conditions we face today. US tariffs average around 3%, and unemployment is under 4%. Despite the headline-grabbing numbers for the high Biden tariffs, this is not Smoot-Hawley.

Unlike the Biden tariffs, the Trump plan is for increased tariffs on all products from all countries. It is not just America First; it is America Alone. Politicians and the public, here and abroad, are getting used to the idea of having higher tariffs, de-sensitized to the fact that high tariffs ought not to be the new normal. They are in fact added taxes on us, and having them will have real costs.

Beyond this, there is a risk of contagion. US treasury secretary Janet Yellen has invited other countries to follow the United States in its imposition of China tariffs. Given that there is an undeclared US trade war with China, this is not surprising, although it is not normal for modern secretaries of the treasury to be tariff proponents. Europe is also expected to act by putting into place much milder tariffs on EVs from China. This is likely be followed by a Chinese response in kind, already being bruited about, affecting luxury autos. Where would this end?

The impact of an unlimited trade war between the United States and China is one thing. China accounts for 16.5% of US imports (2022 figure), still relatively small compared with the nation’s experience in 1930. But the next administration, depending on the outcome of the election, could be working on building tariff walls, this time against world trade.

Only trade experts can readily tell that the two, Trump and Biden, are not using tariffs in the same way. The American public and foreigners looking on can be excused if they don’t see a difference. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the way back from Smoot-Hawley and blanket trade protection. A second Trump administration, freed from an awareness of history, may lead the world toward experimenting with blanket protection, tight-rope walking over an economic abyss. If Biden, sometimes compared to Roosevelt because of his federal programs, is given a second chance, he will need to be clear that his trade policies will be designed to be good for America and good for America’s friends abroad. The American president was formerly seen as "leader of the free world." That honor requires a trade policy that other nations can emulate, that can be both to their advantage and ours.


This article was first published by Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE).

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).

Alan Wm. Wolff is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Until joining PIIE, he was deputy director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

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