Biden calls for tripling of tariffs on Chinese steel

US President Joe Biden. (Image by the US Secretary of Defense, Flickr.)

US President Joe Biden is calling on Wednesday for sharply higher tariffs on Chinese metal products as part of a package of policies aimed at pleasing steelworkers in the swing state of Pennsylvania, at the risk of angering Beijing.

As he makes a campaign stop in the “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Biden will propose raising to 25% the tariffs imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump on certain Chinese steel and aluminum products, according to an administration official.

The products now being targeted currently face up to a 7.5% levy under a Trump-era policy under Section 301 of the US trade law, which Biden launched a review of in 2022. The proposed higher tariff rate would apply to more than $1 billion worth of steel and aluminum products, the official said.

The Biden administration is also pressuring neighboring Mexico to prohibit China from selling its metal products to the United States indirectly from there.

At the same time, it is launching an investigation into Chinese trade practices across the shipbuilding, maritime and logistics sectors, which could lead to more tariffs.

The measures, which are being unveiled as Biden visits the headquarters of the United Steelworkers union, invite blowback from China at a time of already heightened tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.

Trump’s broader imposition of tariffs during his 2017-2021 presidency prompted China’s retaliation with its own levies.

“No trade war,” Biden told reporters traveling with him in Pennsylvania, ahead of his remarks.

Pennsylvania is one of a half-dozen battleground states likely to decide the November election rematch between Biden and Trump. The economy ranks among voters’ top concerns.

Officials said on Wednesday the intervention was “targeted” and should not worsen persistently high inflation.

Key voting bloc

Biden and his Republican opponent have each courted union leaders and blue-collar workers in faded industrial hubs who comprise a significant voting bloc in Pennsylvania and Michigan, another swing state.

The steelworkers union, which sought the measures Biden is now adopting, endorsed him last month.

Biden handed the union another win when he came out last month against a proposed $14.9 billion bid by Japan’s Nippon Steel to buy US Steel Corp.

Both 2024 candidates have sharply departed from the free-trade consensus that once reigned in Washington, capped by China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Trump, who withdrew from the would-be Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017, has proposed a 10% tariff on all imports if he returns to office.

China was the seventh-largest exporter of steel to the US in 2023, with shipments of 598,000 net tons, down 8.2% from 2022, according to US Census Bureau data compiled by the American Iron and Steel Institute, an industry trade group.

Canada was the top exporter to the US, with 6.9 million tons, followed by Mexico, with 4.2 million tons.

Domestic steelmakers shipped 89.3 million net tons of steel in 2023, according to AISI data.

Any new levies on steel and aluminum would be subject to the approval of Biden’s appointed trade representative, Katherine Tai, at the completion of the review of the Trump-era tariffs.

The new levies would come on top of 25% Section 232 national security tariffs also imposed by Trump on steel and aluminum products and product-specific anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties that often reach into the triple-digit percentages.

Still, the Can Manufacturers Institute said in a statement that Biden’s proposal “doesn’t go far enough” as the industry faces threats from China.

China’s economy grew by a faster-than-expected 5.3% in the first quarter, data showed on Tuesday, as the country has turned to exports to shore up growth in the face of protracted weakness in the property sector and mounting local government debt. Beijing regards Trump-era tariffs as discriminatory.

Officials said they expected Chinese exports to start flooding global markets, concerns raised by Biden Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on a trip to the country last week.

China exported 25.8 million tons of steel products in the first quarter, the highest for the period since 2016 and a rise of 30.7% year on year, Chinese customs data showed.

“China cannot export its way to recovery,” Biden’s top economic policymaker, Lael Brainard, told reporters.

(By Trevor Hunnicutt, David Lawder and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonali Paul, Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Oatis)


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