Despite the controversy that seems to color all portrayals of U.S. trade with China, the bilateral relationship has held up remarkably well, to the benefit of both countries. But, as I explain in this hot-off-the-presses Free Trade Bulletin, things could go south quickly if President Obama grants the wish of the United Steelworkers union to impose import restrictions on Chinese-produced passenger tires.
Under a special U.S. statute that applies only to China, the president can authorize import restrictions in cases where a domestic industry is found to be suffering from “market disruption” on account of increased imports from China. The U.S. International Trade Commission already rendered that conclusion in the tires case and recommended that the president impose duties of 55 percent. Though duties might benefit the USW, which represents fewer than half of all U.S. tire production workers, the restrictions would be immensely costly to almost every other interest in the tire supply chain, including distributors, wholesalers, retailers, downstream industrial users, and consumers — especially lower income consumers. Such a decision would amount to a crystal clear U.S. disavowal of its pledge to the G-20 to avoid new invocations of protectionism, just one week ahead of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
The stakes are particularly high in the tires case because the president has the discretion to reject the tariff recommendations altogether, which is exactly what President Bush did on all four occasions when the ITC recommended restrictions under this statute during his administration. Unlike antidumping and countervailing duty restrictions, which run on statutory autopilot without requiring the president’s attention or consent, Section 421 explicitly requires the attention and participation of the U.S. president. The Chinese will view restrictions in this case, then, as a personal directive of President Obama, and the consequences for bilateral relations could be severe.
Please read the paper and circulate liberally.