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China seeks to divide US and allies with WTO dispute

BEIJING — China’s complaint on U.S. tariffs at the World Trade Organization is seen as an attempt to single out increasingly protectionist America and keep Japan and the European Union from joining forces with the U.S. to exert pressure on China on other issues.


The Chinese Commerce Ministry said Thursday it had filed a complaint with the WTO on U.S. import duties on steel and aluminum. U.S. President Donald Trump in March announced levies of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum.


Canada, South Korea and the European Union are exempt from the levies, but China and Japan are not.


The ministry criticized the move as “trade protectionism in the name of ‘national security,'” adding that the U.S. has “seriously violated” the principle of nondiscrimination in multilateral trade. China on Monday put in place retaliatory tariffs of up to 25% on 128 U.S. products, including wine and pork.


By presenting itself as an advocate of WTO rules, China seeks to be on the side of Japan and the European Union and set itself apart from the Trump administration, which is suspected of violating many trade rules. China wants to steer international opinion against the U.S. to prevent itself from coming under fire for issues like intellectual property infringement.


Japan is struggling to gauge the appropriate distance to keep from the Trump administration. The U.S. wants to enlist allies on the issue of China’s intellectual property infringement, and Japan is in agreement with the U.S. on bringing the matter to the WTO. But with Japan subject to the U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, some within the Japanese government question whether working with the U.S. makes sense.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the U.S. April 17-20 and is expected to discuss both matters with President Trump. Some observers are hopeful that Japan can work out an exemption in exchange for offering cooperation on China.


Others downplay the need for an exemption. Japan’s steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. are relatively small, limited to around $2 billion a year. And Japan’s advanced, hard-to-replicate products are somewhat insulated since demand for them would likely not fall much even with the higher tariffs.


South Korea had to reduce its steel shipments to the U.S. and make other concessions in order to earn an exemption. Coming under the higher tariffs would be better than having to make other concessions, a Japanese official said.


Japan would be in a tough spot, in view of the Tokyo-Washington cooperation on North Korea, if the U.S. were to demand that Japan open its market more to American business.




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