A Better Way to Challenge China on Trade

Trump’s Harmful Tariffs Aren’t the Answer

U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by business leaders and administration officials, prepares to sign a memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on high-tech goods from China, at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 2018.  Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

President Donald Trump has finally delivered on a premier campaign promise to hold China to account for its unfair trade practices. The president deserves credit for being more willing than his predecessors to call out China’s bad behavior, but his remedies are among his most disruptive and isolating foreign policies yet. Wide-ranging tariffs will harm American companies and consumers, punish U.S. allies, and undermine the global trading system. There’s a better to way to challenge China that protects U.S. innovation and sustains both U.S. prosperity and leadership in the international economy. 

There’s no disputing that China has done damage to the global trading system and U.S. economic interests. For years, Beijing has flooded world markets with subsidized goods, forced U.S. companies to transfer proprietary technologies to Chinese firms, restricted foreign access to broad sectors of the Chinese economy, and engaged in outright theft of intellectual property. The United States has paid a heavy price in lost growth and jobs. Now, as China moves up the value chain, these same practices are threatening the United States’ prized innovation base as Beijing aims to dominate the technologies of the future, including in robotics, health sciences, and artificial intelligence. 


Trump’s desire to combat China’s mercantilism is widely shared across the U.S. political spectrum and, increasingly, in the U.S. private sector. More controversial is his approach. The Trump administration has employed a series of rarely used domestic laws that predate the multilateral dispute mechanisms of the World Trade Organization (WTO)—specifically, provisions in the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and the Trade Act of 1974 that allow the U.S. government to respond to a range of dangers to national well-being, including surges of imports, over-dependencies that threaten national security, and discrimination against U.S. firms. Trump has decided to use these laws to impose sweeping tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, then on foreign steel and aluminum, and

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