Trump’s Steel and Aluminum National Security Investigations Against China and Others are not a Good Thing

US-China Trade WarThe Trump administration just launched two investigations to see if steel and aluminum imports threaten to impair the national security of the United States. Because these investigations were self-initiated by the Trump administration, many believe it pre-ordained that some type of import restrictions will be imposed. But here are a few reasons why imports should not be restricted, from China or from anywhere else.

Past Section 232 determinations indicate steel/ aluminum imports are not a “national security” threat. Only 26 investigations have ever been conducted under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. Prior Section 232 investigations defined “national security” as covering not only a military or national defense component, but also the general security and welfare of certain industries “critical to the minimum operations of the economy and government.” Most (19 out of 26) resulted in either a finding of no national security threat or no action taken in any way. Only crude oil from Libya and Iran were found to be a national security threat that warranted some type of import restrictions.

The most recent Section 232 investigation concluded in October 2001 and it was also on steel. Even taking into consideration the national security requirements of the post 9/11 campaign against terrorism, the Department of Commerce (DOC) found that imported steel did not threaten to impair U.S. national security. In that report, the DOC found that the entire US military’s steel requirements was less than one percent of the domestic steel industry’s production capacity. DOC concluded (1) that the U.S. was not dependent on imported steel, and (2) that steel imports did not threaten the ability of domestic producers to satisfy any US national security requirements for steel.

Current steel and aluminum data are similar to those considered in the 2001 steel national security investigation. Only 30% of imported steel and aluminum was used in domestic consumption in 2016, showing a lack of dependence on steel and aluminum imports. Even if current US military requirements for steel have doubled from 2001 requirements, this would still be less than one percent of the 88 million tons of steel produced in the United States in 2016. The objective data shows steel and aluminum imports do not pose a threat to national security interests. National security should not be used as a pretense for protectionism.

Import restrictions would harm downstream US manufacturers. Additional tariffs, quotas, or other import restrictions may temporarily create a pocket of artificially higher U.S. market prices for steel and aluminum, particularly when compared to the lower prices in the much larger global market. This may provide a short-term benefit to US steel and aluminum producers who would have substantially less competition after import restrictions are imposed. But downstream US manufacturers who use steel and aluminum to produce cars, air conditioners, washing machines, airplanes, and a host of other industrial and consumer goods will either bear any increased costs and disrupted supply chains, or pass those increased costs down to the ultimate buyer/consumer in the form of higher prices. For every one US manufacturing job saved at a US Steel or Alcoa, sixteen US manufacturing jobs at a Ford, Carrier, Whirlpool, or Boeing, will be put at risk, because their foreign competitors would gain a cost advantage over them because of the import restrictions driving up the U.S. steel and aluminum prices they need to make their cars, air conditioners, washing machines or airplanes. The Trump administration specifically noted that shipbuilding, aircraft and vehicles may also become subject to a national security investigation. But any import restrictions imposed to protect the steel industry would adversely affect these other critical industries that may have to deal with higher steel and aluminum costs. The collateral damage caused by any Section 232 measures could be significant.

How do you distinguish “good” imports from “harmful” imports? Canada is by far the largest source of steel and aluminum imports.  A good number of Canadian producers are affiliates of US steel and aluminum producers. Chinese steel imports ranked 11th out of all 2016 imports and represented less than one percent of U.S. domestic production. The U.S. actually exported more aluminum to China (730,355 tons) than it imported (518,773 tons) in 2016. In the current 232 investigations, the USW has already asked that Canada be excluded from any import restrictions.  “China’s the problem, not Canada or other countries which are following the rules,” said USW President Leo W. Gerard. Presumably Canadian imports are usually considered among the “good” imports. But given the recent trade flare ups with Canada involving softwood lumber, dairy, renegotiating NAFTA, and border adjustment taxes (BAT), it is no longer a given that the Trump administration will give any preferential treatment to Canada.

Import restrictions would not address the real problem of Chinese overcapacity. Any threatened import restrictions would do nothing to reduce the China’s excessive steel and aluminum production capacity. Many of Chinese steel and aluminum mills are inefficient, debt-laden “zombie” state-owned mills that need to be permanently shut down. If China doesn’t cut its production capacity and instead keeps churning out steel and aluminum and selling onto the global market, China’s surplus production will continue driving global prices down. No matter how high the United States tries to build a tariff wall, these U.S. import restrictions will do nothing to address the key cause of global price declines for steel and aluminum.

Import restrictions may trigger retaliation. Section 232 import restrictions have been referred to as the trade “nuclear option“because it is so hard to argue against measures allegedly used to protect a country’s national security interests. If the U.S. invokes “national security” to protect its steel and aluminum industries, other countries will likely claim similar national security interests to protect their own allegedly critical industries from imports. For example, China could claim its soybean industry needs protection from imported soybeans that come primarily from the United States.

Despite the harsh campaign rhetoric during the Trump presidential campaign, Trump as President recently touted the recently announced “early harvest” deal with China as “gigantic” and “Herculean” and as a reset of US-China trade relations. Though the Section 232 national security investigation would appear to be the perfect forum for Trump to single out Chinese steel and aluminum producers for indiscriminate production expansion, it is now unclear whether Trump will do so lest he jeopardize the budding relationship he has developed with President Xin Jinping. If Trump does go after Chinese steel and aluminum imports based on national security grounds, it seems certain China will retaliate and find some U.S. industry to target with its own counter-actions.

If these Section 232 investigations result in import restrictions on all steel and aluminum imports, or even just on Chinese imports, there is a very real possibility the following lose-lose scenario will ensue:

  • steel/ aluminum prices increase, but not enough for the U.S. steel/aluminum industries to improve enough to recover or add any new jobs;
  • downstream industries that use steel and aluminum get hammered by increased steel and aluminum prices and lose sales to cheaper foreign imports from companies that still have access on the global market to lower priced steel or aluminum;
  • key foreign allies get harmed by restrictions on all US imports;
  • China and other countries impose their own national security import restrictions in retaliation against the United States.

I would much prefer the DOC and President Trump come to recognize this is a weak national security case. Labelling steel or aluminum imports as a national security threat is neither necessary nor supportable by the facts. President Trump could take more moderate actions that may be enough to claim political victory while avoiding retaliation from global trading partners.

Dan Harris

Dan Harris is internationally regarded as a leading authority on legal matters related to doing business in China and in other emerging economies in Asia. Forbes Magazine, Business Week, Fortune Magazine, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist, CNBC, The New York Times, and many other major media players, have looked to him for his perspective on international law issues.