Beijing has warned that new US tariffs on its products 'threaten China's economic interests and security'
Washington (United States) (AFP) - President Donald Trump's administration claims it has doubled America's efforts to fight unfair trade, compared to Barack Obama's presidency.
But a closer look at data from US trade officials' efforts to counter the dumping and illegitimate subsidies accused of hurting US companies shows Team Trump's efforts appear to be lagging.
The president so far has not carried out his most dire warnings on trade.
He has retreated from threats to scrap major trade agreements and on Thursday said he might even re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- which he withdrew from after taking office last year.
He has also temporarily exempted America's largest trading partners from punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum, while his heaviest tariffs on Chinese goods have yet to take effect.
But since last year, the administration has touted a blitz of one-off efforts to slap tariffs on a series of manufactured items, industrial supplies and agricultural goods.
The aim is to protect American producers from the alleged dumping of products on the US market at below fair value and under purportedly unfair subsidies by foreign governments.
Goods as varied as Spanish olives, Argentine biodiesel and woven sacks from Vietnam. Various forms of steel and aluminum from Europe, Asia and Africa. Strange-sounding industrial chemicals little known to the general public like polyethylene terephthalate resin from Pakistan and ammonium sulfate, used in fertilizer, from China.
All of these figure among imports the Trump administration says should face added duties to protect American suppliers.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress last month he was vastly outpacing the Obama administration's anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases.
"We have been running 70, 80 percent more cases initiated than had been true in the prior administration," Ross said during testimony on the budget. "We have also completed far more cases than any administration ever has completed. We had over 100 cases."
These efforts can hit snags, however, at the bi-partisan US International Trade Commission, which is independent and has the power to block the administration's anti-dumping and "countervailing duty" tariffs when it sees no harm to US industry.
To the dismay of US aircraft giant Boeing, the ITC in February blocked the administration from putting duties on a $5 billion order of CSeries mid-range jets from Canada's Bombardier.
- Swatting away tariffs -
The commission has also swatted away tariffs on imports of titanium sponge from Japan and Kazakhstan (with annual imports valued together at $145.2 million), sodium gluconate and gluconic acid from France ($6.4 million) and rubber bands from Sri Lanka ($2 million).
When these denials are taken into account, Trump's first year in fact looks slower than Barack Obama's last.
The combined annual value of imports in trade-remedy cases begun in Trump's first year amounts to just over $6 billion, involving imports from 29 countries.
But in 2016, the US issued final anti-dumping and countervailing duty orders on $6.6 billion worth of imports from just 18 countries -- almost $600 million more.
The amounts in question may seem small, given the $566 billion US trade deficit last year. Economists also say the trade-remedy cases are most likely a drag on the overall economy as they tend to drive up prices.
"That's not the point," said Peter Watson, a former ITC chairman. "They're there to help certain companies and certain sectors through periods of unfair trade."
The Commerce Department told AFP it had no control over determinations by the ITC, which had produced only a handful of negative findings.
"It just so happened that one was an unusually large case," a spokesman told AFP, referring to ITC's decision on Bombardier.
The 84 new cases opened in Trump's first year still represent the most ever in the first-year of any US administration, the spokesman said, adding that the tariffs allowed US producers to compete and win on a level playing field.
But Chad Bown, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said counting cases, rather than measuring the dollar amount of trade at issue, was highly misleading.
Bown's own estimates of affected trade value -- which take into account how imports might otherwise have grown over time in the absence of the tariffs -- show the Trump administration was even further behind Obama.
"The trade coverage last year looks like to me to be only about half as big as the trade coverage of the last year of the Obama administration," he said.
Firms which might otherwise have sought dumping and countervailing duty orders -- which can run up hefty legal bills -- may have held off high-dollar trade cases, hoping instead for relief from the tariffs Trump promised, he said.