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Editorial: Trump’s security threat claim on auto imports makes mockery of int’l law

U.S. President Donald Trump has proclaimed that rising vehicle imports is a threat to America’s national security. He has delayed a decision on imposing high tariffs on auto imports for another six months, and indicated that he will negotiate with Japan and Europe, which both export many vehicles to the United States, to try to make progress.


Trump’s decision carries great weight. He can threaten other countries anytime by saying that he is prepared to impose import duties based on U.S. legislation allowing high tariffs in case of a threat to national security.


It is believed that Trump wants to draw out concessions favorable for the U.S. such as restrictions on vehicle exports. The fact that the U.S. presidential election is approaching probably played a part in his unilateral six-month time limit to consider the auto tariffs move.


Trump’s action is based on aggressive and selfish logic. For a start, vehicle imports do not constitute a “threat to security.”


The Trump administration takes the position that an increase in vehicle imports will decrease the developmental power of the U.S. motor vehicle industry, and thus negatively impact national security. But national security stands on the comprehensive force of a wide range of industries, including information technology. It is difficult to understand a position stressing vehicles alone.


Going a step further, the vehicles used by ordinary members of the public have no bearing on national security. Moreover, Japan and Europe are allies of the United States, while Trump’s move also grossly disrespects the spirit of international law.


World Trade Organization (WTO) rules permit restrictions on imports as exceptions if the reason for imposing them is to maintain national security. The United States probably wants to use the national security argument to stress that it is abiding by international law. But the exceptions permitted by the WTO are limited to emergency situations, and the general consensus is that application of such exceptions is extremely rare.


If national security is widely permitted as a reason for action, other countries could start inappropriately imposing high tariffs, using the importance of food or energy as excuses. International order could not hold up under such circumstances.


Last year the Trump administration similarly imposed high tariffs on steel and other goods on the basis of national security. It can’t be helped if people take the view that Trump is merely stretching the meaning of “threat to security” to protect U.S. industries.


It is possible that the United States could now demand restrictions on vehicle imports by hinting that it could impose high tariffs. This would warp free trade more than the tariffs themselves, and violate WTO rules.


Protectionism will only backfire for the United States. It could end up a hotbed for inefficient production systems and decrease competitiveness, while consumers would be made to purchase expensive vehicles. If economic power decreased as a result, the protectionist approach would in fact have worked against national security.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold talks with Trump next week when the U.S. president visits Japan. He should stress that Trump’s move is not in line with international law and will only work to the disadvantage of the United States, and request that Washington reverse course.

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