The start of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an alarming and disturbing period of time for many Americans. As supply chains stalled amidst a global shutdown, the United States was forced to confront its heavy import-dependence on China and other countries for many goods used in everyday life. Particularly worrying was a rapid shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). China, in particular, halted exports of face masks and other PPE to supply its own population.
This was a serious challenge. But U.S. manufacturers quickly answered the call to meet the country’s needs. Factories retooled their manufacturing lines to produce everything from face masks and hand sanitizer to medical ventilators. It was an encouraging display of America’s ingenuity and productive know-how — particularly during a time of struggle.
Since then, the U.S. has tried to find its footing in a changing global landscape. Over the past 18 months, U.S. manufacturers have invested heavily in new PPE production lines. And as a result, many domestic companies are now manufacturing the medical supplies and equipment needed to confront ongoing COVID-19 concerns, including the Delta variant.
Of particular help to U.S. manufacturers as they built new, domestic PPE production was the Section 301 tariffs imposed on China in 2018. These tariffs were the Trump administration’s response to Beijing’s longstanding, aggressive trade practices — including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and hacking of U.S. firms. Targeting a broad range of China’s imports sent a clear message to Beijing that such predatory behavior would not be tolerated. And it gave U.S. companies the breathing room needed to establish new PPE production despite continued competition from China’s heavily subsidized, state-owned factories.
Since that time, Americans have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks and hand sanitizer are now commonplace — and plentiful. And U.S. firms continue to expand their production of these important items.
Despite this impressive growth at home, some in Washington are now looking to end the tariffs on imports of China-made PPE products. Specifically, they want to exempt Chinese PPE goods from the 301 tariffs.
This is deeply unfortunate since U.S. producers have made sizable gains in manufacturing these essential items at home. And thanks in part to their hard work, there is currently no domestic or global shortage of PPE equipment.
If anything, the U.S. is experiencing a glut of cheap PPE — since China is now dumping poorly manufactured masks and other PPE items into the U.S. market at below the cost of production. The apparent intent is to seize market share from domestic U.S. producers. But since there aren’t any PPE shortages in the U.S., there is no justification for giving China such leeway.
Instead, Washington should recognize and support the long-term investments made by U.S. manufacturers to ramp up domestic PPE production. America’s manufacturers continue to compete against state-owned producers in China that benefit from multi-billion dollar subsidies, forced labor, and lax environmental standards.
Thanks to its mercantilism and heavy subsidies, Beijing has long succeeded in gutting key U.S. industries — including pharmaceuticals, electronics, and solar equipment. This is precisely why the Section 301 tariffs were imposed in 2018. Unfortunately, China has made no discernible effort to address its violations of global trade rules since that time. And so, America’s manufacturers still remain locked in competition with an unscrupulous, win-at-all-costs adversary.
Imposing Section 301 tariffs was in the national interest since the United States has lost key industries to China and now depends on imports for a vast array of resources. That includes everything from pharmaceuticals and military hardware to rare earth metals.
The tariffs on China must be continued. This goes doubly for imports of personal protective equipment from China to ensure that Americans have reliable access to health care equipment. If the PPE tariffs were relaxed and America became dependent on China again, it would be too late to confront another pandemic successfully.
• Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Follow him at @michael_stumo.
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