New tariffs signal America's new era of inwardness

Tom Fowdy
The latest US tariffs on Chinese renewable energy products are an election stunt. But it also shows that the US, once a leading advocate of open markets, is retreating inward.
Tom Fowdy

It should come as no surprise to anyone that US President Joe Biden unleashed a wide range of tariffs on Chinese renewable energy products, including a 100 percent levy on the import of electric vehicles. The policy shift had been long coming, backed by a repeated narrative accusing Beijing of "overcapacity" in its manufacturing and asserting "unfair trade practices."

The move has little strategic significance, not least because the United States does not import electric vehicles from China anyway. Rather, it should be seen as an election strategy by the Biden administration to assess support in a domestic atmosphere that is now classified as "protectionist." Biden and Donald Trump are competing fiercely to "bring jobs back to America," with Michigan, a state noted for its industrial decline and automobile manufacture, acting as a key battleground in the November election.

A perceived failure to "protect" US car industries, and thus the jobs of the working-class people they employ, could prove politically fatal to Biden, and thus China becomes a convenient scapegoat for being seen to do something about US jobs.

Trump has suggested considerably harsher, broader and all-encompassing tariffs on Chinese imports, and given the political instability he brings, we should expect a second Trump administration to be more aggressive, chaotic and unstable than the first. As a result, the China issue devolves into a zero-sum game. It is little surprise that with each US presidential election year, relations deteriorate.

But this speaks volumes about what America has become. Once the world's leading advocate of free trade and open markets, believing them to be a political force for transformation, the United States has ultimately turned inward. There are few countries in history that have been more associated with "globalization" than modern America. That's because the US has become a hallmark for the exporting of global culture, which could easily be defined through three words: McDonald's, Disney and Coca Cola.

Remember the famous image of Russians queuing up outside the first McDonald's in the former Soviet Union in January 1990? This is what we understood to be US globalization, and it is both an ironic twist of history and a sign of the times that McDonald's no longer operates in Russia. This is due to the end of the US-led globalization era, during which the US shaped the world.

As the geopolitical balance of power swings, the United States has turned inward and defensive, viewing China's rise as a counterbalance to its own globalization. In contrast to Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, the growth of China has created a sense of fear in the US, leading them to reject free trade principles.

Thus, America no longer champions open markets but tariffs, export controls, sanctions, market exclusions, and other embargoes, aiming to try and prevent the rise of China and its grasp over global technology and clean energy supply chains. Instead of attempting to compete, the US asserts its inability to do so and accuses the other side of engaging in unfair practices. This is evident in the rhetoric of "China's unfair practices" or in the form of numerous scare stories disseminated by the mainstream media, which falsely accuse Chinese products of espionage or malicious intent, often without supporting evidence.

Thus, the US is trying to create supply chains centered around itself in the sectors of clean energy and semiconductors, based in America, but there is no reason to believe this can be done on an affordable and productive scale.

That is because the neoliberal global economic system is not a malicious Chinese scheme but rather the system that the United States established, championed, and thus determined it no longer benefits from.

King Canute of Denmark sought to demonstrate literally to his advisers that he could not hold back the waves or shift the changing tides, but Washington lives in a world of its own, and we shouldn't expect this US policy to change anytime soon.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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