But strategic and political considerations outweigh the allure. Whatever the benefit to the confused consumers, the implications at home and abroad for America’s most troubled international relationship raises the stakes higher than that.
“The reason for doing or not doing this shouldn’t be inflation,” said Richard Haass, a top State Department official under President George W. Bush, who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. “The impact on US-China relations, and the domestic politics of US-China relations, would be greater than any impact on inflation.”
“These costs, compounded by other inflationary pressures, place a significant burden on American businesses, farmers and families trying to recover from the effects of the pandemic,” wrote the business groups ranging from the American Soybean Association to the Information Technology Industry Council. .
But White House officials said tariffs were not on the US agenda. After Biden and Xi talked for more than three hours and the White House was politically battered by its highest inflation in decades, no policy change was announced.
Yet he still faces Republican allegations of weakness over China policy, a staple of Trump’s 2020 campaign. While Haass called those attacks “absurd,” unilaterally lifting tariffs would only encourage Republicans to bolster them.
And the tariffs fell short of Trump’s goal of revitalizing U.S. manufacturing. In 2019, before the pandemic rocked the economy, the Federal Reserve said the manufacturing industry had effectively entered a recession.
But Biden has only eased tariffs on European steel and aluminum so far. The more drastic Chinese tariffs on imported consumer goods and semi-finished products that companies use to make finished products will remain in place.
Trade experts praise Trump for taking a harder line after years in which China had thwarted global rules by stealing intellectual property, subsidizing domestic industries and restricting imports at the expense of both corporate America and workers. He managed to get Beijing to relax restrictions on US agricultural imports and the activities of US financial firms in China.
Yet the modest effect of Trump’s policies on Chinese exporters failed to capitalize on the fundamental economic reforms he had pursued.
“It really hasn’t done much for the Chinese,” noted Scott Lincicome, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“In general, these tariffs fall almost 100% on American consumers,” added Jennifer Hillman, a former trade official under President Bill Clinton who now teaches law at Georgetown University. “The only question for Biden is, can you get anything for abolishing these tariffs?”
In a speech last month, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said only that “we will initiate a targeted tariff exclusion process” that could lift selected tariffs in a process that “best serves our economic interests.” But she noted that China has failed to deliver on previous promises to buy American goods and is maintaining an “unfair policy” that subsidizes domestic production of steel, semiconductors and solar products at America’s expense.
“I am committed to addressing the many challenges ahead in this bilateral process to deliver meaningful results,” promised Tai at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But above all, we must defend our economic interests to the utmost.”
That doesn’t mean Biden can’t find a politically acceptable path to the price-cutting benefits of lifting more Trump tariffs in the coming months. But that requires agile negotiations over concessions from America’s most formidable competitor.
“Like sanctions or war,[tariffs]are easier to initiate than to remove,” Haass concluded. “That’s why God invented diplomats.”