THE UNITED STATES should stand for free trade and, consistent with that policy, exercise its right of redress when other nations try to gain unfair advantage. Fighting back can be tricky, though; Washington has to be careful not to create new problems in the process of dealing with existing ones.
Case in point: The Trump administration recently began an investigation into the national security threat allegedly posed by imports of two metals, steel and aluminum, that are undeniably crucial to the manufacture of military hardware. The chief target here is China, whose vast, bloated government-backed industries are flooding the world market with cheap product, threatening the viability of U.S. producers.
That, in turn, could create not only economic woes for those companies, but also a dangerous level of dependency for U.S. war-fighters. The basic complaint against China — that it is pumping out exports from money-losing plants and propping them up with cheap loans — is sound. Indeed, one of the last acts of the Obama administration was to file a complaint about this at the World Trade Organization.
By invoking its national security interests, the Trump administration seeks to shield any retaliatory measures it may adopt behind an exception to global free-trade rules. It’s an aggressive tactic presidents have used only 26 times since Congress authorized it 55 years ago, in a law called Section 232. And investigations pursuant to that law have resulted in sanctions only twice, against oil imports from Libya and Iran in the early 1980s.
There’s just one problem: Section 232, necessarily aimed generally at U.S. imports, is not optimally targeted at the specific challenge of Chinese dumping.
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