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Biden Seeks To Triple Tariffs On Chinese Steel And Aluminum

President Joe Biden has made appealing to manufacturing-heavy states like Pennsylvania a core part of his pitch for a second term.
President Joe Biden has made appealing to manufacturing-heavy states like Pennsylvania a core part of his pitch for a second term. Kyle Mazza/Anadolu/Getty Images

Ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to the United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the White House announced a series of measures designed to shield the domestic steel, aluminum and shipbuilding industries from alleged trade abuses by China.

The biggest step Biden announced is that he will be asking the office of the United States Trade Representative to explore the possibility of tripling the current 7.5% tariff on Chinese steel and aluminum imports. 

Biden’s planned policy changes are in keeping with his administration’s interest in bolstering U.S. manufacturing and heavy industry.

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It is also part of Biden’s effort to pitch himself as a more effective tribune of working-class interests than former President Donald Trump, who made a show of trying to save manufacturing jobs from competition with China.

“The president understands we must invest in American manufacturing, but we also have to protect those investments and those workers from unfair exports associated with China’s industrial overcapacity,” Lael Brainerd, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said on a call with reporters on Tuesday night. 

Even as he seeks to eat into Trump’s support in industrial regions, the very authority that Biden is tapping to potentially expand tariffs on Chinese imports speaks to the extent to which he has sought to continue and expand upon the more hawkish trade policies of his predecessor, Trump. 

Biden is calling on the office of the U.S. Trade Representative to examine whether its authority under Section 301, which permits the U.S. to impose trade sanctions on trading partners that produce an “unreasonable” burden on U.S. commerce, permits it to triple the tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum. Trump had invoked Section 301 to levy tariffs on Chinese imports to the delight of domestic industries and labor unions who represent workers in those industries.

In addition, the White House announced that the U.S. Trade Representative is investigating China’s alleged unfair trade practices in the shipbuilding industry, and Biden plans to press Mexico on China’s efforts to evade steel tariffs by representing themselves as Mexican-made products.

Pennsylvania is the most significant battleground state where the steel and aluminum industries remain economically significant. But memories of a more robust U.S. manufacturing sector resonate deeply across the Great Lakes region, including Michigan and Wisconsin, two other swing states.

Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, held a two-point lead over Trump in the Keystone State in the latest public poll

Libertarian-leaning critics of tariffs argue that they effectively pass costs on to consumers and subsidize companies that would not be able to survive on their own. But Biden ― and his allies across the ideological spectrum ― argue that China’s documented patterns of underwriting overproduction of their own exports as a way to gain a foothold in other countries is not a fair form of competition. 

“In manufacturing sectors like steel, China’s already producing more than China or the world can easily absorb,” Brainerd said. “China’s subsidies and other forms of support lead to exports flooding global markets at artificially low prices, undercutting American steel.”