Trump seeks new China tariffs, as trade war worries mount

“The goal here is to get China to fairly treat U.S. companies the way we treat Chinese companies that are in our market,” another official, taking questions from reporters on the condition of anonymity, said. The administration hopes that the tariffs ensure “we are working and trade on a level playing field,” this person said. How long the tariffs last, the official said, “rests with” China and the steps they take to correct unfair trade practices.

This latest round of tariffs follows controversial trade penalties leveled by Trump this month on steel and aluminum imports. That announcement was marked by the administration as a promise made and kept by the president — but it lost him his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who was opposed to the tariffs and resigned in the midst of their announcement. Trump has hinted that Cohn could come back to the administration at some point.

To Trump, his willingness to take action has driven more trading partners to the negotiating table. “Many countries are calling to negotiate better trade deals because they don’t want to pay steel and aluminum tariffs,” the president said.

Lighthizer told a Senate committee Thursday the president had decided that the E.U., Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Korea will be exempt from the steel and aluminum tariffs.

While Trump took a hard line on Chinese economic practices during the 2016 campaign, his rhetoric as president has warmed toward the country. Trump has enjoyed a warm relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, applauding him for taking an increased role in the North Korea crisis and steering away from criticisms of China for currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

 The president on Thursday directed his top trade adviser to level an estimated $50 billion in new tariffs against Chinese goods. AFP – Getty Images

He highlighted that “great relationship” Thursday as he announced the tariffs, predicting that ongoing negotiations will likely yield results for the U.S. and that, until then, Section 301 actions would begin to protect American interests.

In Beijing last year, Trump even said he didn’t “blame” China for taking advantage of the U.S. on trade.

“After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” Trump said then. “I give China great credit.”

But Thursday’s trade actions come more in line with Trump’s tough talk from the campaign days, when he would rile crowds with vows to bring China into a more balanced trade relationship with the United States.

Navarro alluded to decades of U.S.-Chinese trade policy that included talk, but little action. “Talk is not cheap,” he said. “It’s been very expensive to the American people.” Asked about the impact on consumers, a senior administration official guessed that there would be “minimal effects on the consumer.”

Some experts, however, think these tariffs could come at the cost of American buyers.

Daniel Ikenson of the Cato Institute said the trade measures are “likely to raise production costs for U.S. businesses, diminish U.S. productivity, squeeze real household incomes, reduce the revenues of U.S. farmers and other export-dependent industries targeted by Chinese retaliation, exacerbate tensions with China and other countries adversely affected by the restrictions, and hasten the demise of the rules-based trading system.”