The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be an alarming and worrying time for many Americans. As supply chains stagnated amid a global shutdown, the United States was forced to contend with its heavy reliance on imports from China and other countries for many products used in daily life. Of particular concern is the rapid shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). China, in particular, has halted exports of face masks and other PPE to supply its own population.
It was a serious challenge. But American manufacturers quickly responded to the call to meet the country’s needs. Factories have 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 skill, especially in times of struggle.
Since then, the United States has tried to find its place in a changing global landscape. Over the past 18 months, US manufacturers have invested heavily in new PPE production lines. And as a result, many domestic companies are now manufacturing the necessary medical supplies and equipment to deal with current COVID-19 issues, including the Delta variant.
The Section 301 tariffs imposed on China in 2018 were particularly helpful to U.S. manufacturers as they built a new domestic production of PPE. These tariffs were the Trump administration’s response to Beijing’s long-standing aggressive business practices – including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and hacking of U.S. companies. The targeting of a wide range of Chinese imports sent a clear message to Beijing that such predatory behavior would not be tolerated. And it gave US companies the leeway to establish new PPE production despite continued competition from heavily subsidized state-owned factories in China.
Since that time, Americans have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks and hand sanitizer are now commonplace – and plentiful. And American companies continue to increase their production of these important items.
Despite this impressive growth at home, some in Washington are now seeking to end tariffs on imports of PPE products made in China. Specifically, they want to exempt Chinese PPE products from the 301 tariffs.
This is deeply regrettable since American producers have made huge gains in making these essential home items. And thanks in part to their hard work, there is currently no national or global shortage of PPE equipment.
On the contrary, the United States is experiencing a glut of cheap PPE – as China is now throwing poorly made masks and other items of PPE into the US market for less than the cost of production. The apparent intention is to capture market share from US domestic producers. But since there is no shortage of PPE in the United States, there is no reason to give China such leeway.
Instead, Washington should recognize and support the long-term investments made by American manufacturers to increase domestic production of PPE. American manufacturers continue to compete with Chinese state-owned producers who benefit from multibillion-dollar subsidies, forced labor, and lax environmental standards.
Thanks to its commercialism and heavy subsidies, Beijing has long been successful in gutting key US industries, including pharmaceuticals, electronics and solar equipment. This is precisely why Section 301 tariffs were imposed in 2018. Unfortunately, China has not made any discernible effort to remedy its violations of global trade rules since then. And so, American manufacturers always remain in competition with an unscrupulous and winning opponent at all costs.
The imposition of tariffs under Section 301 was in the national interest as the United States has lost key industries to China and now depends on imports for a wide range of resources. This includes everything from pharmaceuticals and military equipment to rare earth metals.
The tariffs on China must be maintained. This is doubly true for imports of personal protective equipment from China to ensure Americans have reliable access to health care equipment. If PPE tariffs were relaxed and America again became dependent on China, it would be too late to successfully deal with another pandemic.
• Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Follow him on @michael_stumo.