Trade Trouble – East, West and South, but North is Settled for Now!

Container Ship Enroute to Port

Photo credit: iStock.com/Darwin Brandis

By Susan Kohn Ross

Agriculture Secretary Perdue recently stated the trade damages to be addressed in a new round of farm aid is $15 to $20 billion! The general press is replete with stories about how, as these tariffs continue, companies are making sourcing changes that will be hard to reverse. So, what is the latest news?

First, there is trade with China. It seems clear that unless there is a breakthrough at the G-20 meeting in Tokyo, or shortly thereafter, the anecdotal headaches we hear about will get far more costly. The American Chamber of Commerce in China and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai conducted a survey before List 3 was announced. Even at that point, American companies operating in China acknowledged higher production costs, decreased demand for products, reduced staffing, reduced profits, increased inspections at importation, increased bureaucratic oversight and regulatory scrutiny, slower approval of licenses and permits, higher product rejections, and increasing plans to relocate (but not back to the U.S.).

On a point one can consider only marginally helpful, those with goods on List 3 now have until June 14th to file their entries. To be clear, the goods still must have left China before May 10, and the entry filed no later than June 14th for the 10% to apply. Otherwise, you pay the 25%.

On a somewhat more positive note, if you found the May 21, 2019 Federal Register notice, it published the submission by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to the Office of Management and Budget of a request for expedited approval of a form to be used for List 3 exclusion requests. In that notice, USTR stated it expected the window to open for List 3 exclusion requests around June 30, 2019, which is 10 days after the Tokyo G-20 meeting. If they have not already done so, companies would be wise to start the data gathering process. Among the information to be submitted are product details, whether the product or one comparable can be purchased in the U.S. or other sources outside China, the value and quantity of the product imported in 2017, 2018 and Q1 2019 distinguished by sourcing from China, other third countries and domestically, the degree of severe economic harm caused by the tariffs, and whether or not the applicant submitted any exclusion requests regarding products on List 1 or 2. Those who have prepared exclusion requests for goods on Lists 1 and 2 will instantly recognize the data requirements.

Complicating U.S.-China relations further, on May 15, 2019, a Presidential Document was issued entitled Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain. It forms the framework permitting the Administration to name companies barred from doing business with U.S. entities on national security grounds. On May 21, 2019, the Bureau of Industry and Security published a Federal Register notice adding Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. and various affiliates (68 in total) to the Entity List on the ground there is reasonable cause to believe that Huawei “has been involved with activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” A May 22, 2019 Federal Register notice reversed that position and issued a Temporary General License effective between May 20, 2019 and August 19, 2019 for these same entities. See Supplement 7 to 15 CFR part 744.

Underscoring that tit-for-tat is very real, China announced on June 1, 2019 the creation of its own “unreliable” entities list. The initial rollout of this new policy took the form of a press briefing. That coverage made clear the criteria which China will rely upon is typically opaque: “foreign enterprises, organizations and individuals could land on this list because they do not obey market rules, violate contracts and block or cut off supply for non-commercial reasons, severely damage the legitimate interests of Chinese companies” or “pose a threat or potential threat to national security.” Almost immediately thereafter, it was announced that FedEx is under investigation in China for misdelivering some packages for Huawei (including returning them to sender or improperly routing them to the U.S.). China stated the purpose of the “unreliable entities list” was to “protect international economic and trade rules and the multilateral trading system, to oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism, and to safeguard China’s national security, social and publish interests,” according to a Ministry of Commerce spokesman.

Then there is the issue of China’s supply of rare earth minerals. China’s official press points out it is only a matter of time before China rolls out a plan to severely limit its exports of these metals which are used to make a variety of electronic products or accessories (including lithium batteries) along with items for U.S. military purposes such as to manufacture night vision goggles, precision-guided weapons and communications/GPS equipment. The latest numbers show that 52% of these metals are found in China and Russia (neither is exactly a friend to the U.S. right now), whereas 18% can be found in Brazil, but only about 1% in the U.S.

Add to this the announcement on May 30th, there will be tariffs imposed on “all goods imported from Mexico.” Even a few days later the most basic questions remain unanswered. Does this statement literally mean all goods from Mexico? What about American products returned which are duty free because unchanged? How about American products used to assemble the final product in Mexico but qualifying for duty free on the American components in the final product? [For you trade nerds – think 9801 and 9802.] What about goods which are of not of Mexican origin? Or are NAFTA qualifying?

Right now, all we have is the timeline – 5% on June 10%, 10% on July 1, 15% on August 1, 20% on September 1 and 25 % on October 1. Every indication right now is these tariffs will be imposed. Then the question becomes: are there grounds on which the tariffs would be removed? The only answer we have right now is if Mexico does “enough” to satisfy President Trump that all reasonable action was taken to stem the tide of migration, the tariffs would be removed. However, the determination as whether “enough” has been done is solely within the discretion of the President in the current proposal.

Having declared in February 2019 the migration situation at the U.S. southern border to be a matter of national security, President Trump has chosen now to invoke IEEPA to support the current action. IEEPA is the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, see 50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq. It authorizes the President to act in the national security interest of the country if dealing with “any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States.”

 Article 302 of NAFTA as currently enacted provides: “… no Party may increase any existing customs duty, or adopt any customs duty, on an originating good.” In other words, the imposition of this additional tariff on NAFTA-qualifying goods violates NAFTA and presents yet another reason why a precisely-worded policy is needed and a claim is possible. Can we also expect a World Trade Organization claim, assuming the bilateral discussions between the two countries do not diffuse the situation?

How does any of this help hardworking American business owners (of any size and in any industry) to keep their companies operating and profitable? This situation makes us all wonder how long it will take for the American public to wake up and realize China and Mexico are not paying these tariffs?

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