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U.S. launches “national security” probe into auto imports

WASHINGTON — The United States launched a national security investigation Wednesday into automobile imports that has the potential to significantly affect Japanese and other foreign automakers if it leads to the imposition of new tariffs.


In a related move, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Donald Trump is seeking new tariffs of as much as 25 percent on automobile imports, up from the 2.5 percent duty on imported passenger cars.


Trump said he has instructed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to probe into “imports of automobiles, including trucks, and automotive parts to determine their effects on America’s national security,” a similar logic he used before slapping stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in March.


Reflecting his “America First” mantra, Trump said in a statement that “core industries such as automobiles and automotive parts are critical to our strength as a nation.”


The latest move sparked criticism from Japan, with Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko saying if such a measure is taken, it “will plunge the global market into turmoil.”


Expressing “strong concern,” Seko told reporters in Tokyo that the reported hike in tariffs on imported vehicles could affect the global rules of trade under the World Trade Organization.


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said any steps on trade policy should be consistent with WTO rules. Tokyo will continue to closely monitor the move, the top government spokesman added.


In Washington, Ross said he initiated the investigation following a conversation with Trump earlier Wednesday.


Aside from trucks and automotive parts, the probe will cover sport utility vehicles, vans and light trucks, according to the Commerce Department.


“There is evidence suggesting that, for decades, imports from abroad have eroded our domestic auto industry,” Ross said in a statement.


Commerce Department data show the United States has posted large deficits in automobile trade with countries such as Japan, Germany, South Korea and Mexico.


During the past 20 years, imports of passenger cars have grown from 32 percent of vehicles sold in the United States to 48 percent, according to the department.


From 1990 to 2017, employment in motor vehicle production in the nation shrank by 22 percent, even though Americans continue to purchase automobiles at record levels, it said.

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