Election Smoke & Mirrors: Assessing Biden’s Recent Tariff Moves Against China



Simon J. Evenett | International Institute for Management Development (IMD)

Now that the dust has settled, what should executives make of President Biden’s recent restrictions on certain goods sourced from China?


Unlike President Trump’s across-the-board import tax increases on Chinese goods in 2018 and 2019, the tariff increases announced on 14 May 2024 by the Biden Administration will affect just 14 product categories. The Biden Administration prefers selective decoupling from China, which is restricted to a limited number of sensitive sectors. Just $18bn of Chinese imports are expected to be affected, less than 5% of total Chinese annual imports to the United States.

This isn’t another Trump-style tariff war

The very fact that President Biden felt he had to take this high-profile measure is a testament to three factors:

  • The tightness of November’s US presidential election.
  • Biden’s desire to shore up his base vote in key swing states comprised mainly of trade union members working in traditional manufacturing sectors, and their families.
  • How few friends China has in Washington, D.C.

In terms of corporate impact, there are two drivers: timing and the scale of current sourcing from China.

Some goods shipped from China — including aluminum, cranes, electric vehicles, face masks, lithium-ion batteries, and steel — will face higher import tariffs this year. The disruption could be felt very soon, and procurement managers will already be reviewing sourcing alternatives.

Higher tariffs on semiconductors won’t be rolled out until 2025, providing a strong incentive to bring forward any plans to import from China. Ironically, this may create the very export surge from China that the Biden Administration says it wants to prevent. However, China is not a big supplier of semiconductors to the USA in the first place.

Natural graphite, magnets, and medical gloves shipments from China won’t get hit with higher tariffs until 2026. This will delay any supply chain responses, especially if President Biden is re-elected and if there are doubts that he will follow through on these tariff measures.

As mentioned above, the other consideration is the amount of sourcing from China in the first place. In the case of EVs, China already faces 25% tariffs, and few are currently shipped to the USA.

In summary, the near-term disruption for supply chains will be concentrated on a small number of products. This is not welcome for the firms affected, but Biden’s May 2024 tariff moves do not presage widespread upheaval. Indeed, some analysts have argued that Biden’s recent tariffs amount to election-year window dressing and were designed to look tough but disrupt little. Optics matter. To date, Chinese retaliation has been uncharacteristically modest, reinforcing assessments that Biden’s May tariff move was electoral smoke and mirrors.

So, is Biden’s move no big deal? 

Not so fast. Where Trump was erratic and transactional in his dealings with China, Biden’s team has been methodical and persistent. Current US Administration officials deemphasize decoupling from the Chinese economies but reckon there needs to be “a small yard and a high fence.” By this, they mean that some sectors and technologies are — or should become — off-limits to Chinese buyers, firms, and investors. A ramping up of restrictions on inbound and outbound investments and technology sales involving all or selected Chinese firms has been the hallmark of Biden’s first-term trade policy.

Indeed, the May 2024 tariff measures apply to some sensitive sectors where China is effectively excluded from US markets. Those tariff measures often involve eye-watering increases in import taxes (up to 100% in some cases and far in excess of what Trump imposed), which is a testament to the height of the fence Biden seeks.

If the Biden team could state once and for all the commercial deals it is prepared to allow and those it doesn’t, then executives could plan. However, technology evolves over time — as do Chinese tactics to circumvent US controls — and, not unreasonably, Washington, D.C., reserves the right to change the terms of commercial engagement with China.

This raises fears that the yard will expand over time and the fence will get higher — even if Biden wins re-election. Such situations clearly call for scenario planning. After all, Trump’s plans for higher tariffs on China’s imports are well known.

The other big unknown is how China will ultimately respond. The Biden team informed Beijing weeks in advance of its tariff hikes — probably on the grounds that no one likes surprises. So far, Beijing has turned the other cheek and has not hit back. Many trade policy analysts reckon China won’t retaliate too forcefully or publicly for fear of increasing the odds Biden will lose being re-elected. The argument that clinches it for many observers is surely that President Xi and his new team don’t want to see Trump return to the US Presidency, not least because of the latter’s threat to impose an additional 60% across-the-board tariffs on US imports from China.

I am not so sanguine. President Xi’s newish team is widely regarded as very nationalistic and may want to burnish these credentials by striking back against US exports at a time of their choosing. Moreover, given Donald Trump’s self-professed admiration for “strong men” (a group that includes Xi), the Chinese may estimate that for all Trump’s bluster, they can reach a deal with him that is preferable to anything Biden’s team is likely to offer. We will see how long Beijing holds its punches.

Is this episode over? Are any other trade policy threats on the horizon?

Biden’s team probably hopes it has done enough to protect its standard bearer against accusations of going soft on China, but that doesn’t mean that trade diplomacy is over for the year. US policy has been to systematically cultivate support from other Western governments for its approach to Chinese commercial relations. In this regard, developments at the G7 are what to watch.

Created in the 1970s and expanded, the G7 is a club of Europe’s four largest economies (France, Germany, Italy, and the UK), as well as Japan, Canada, and the United States. Their government leaders and ministers meet often. In fact, for some time now, US officials have sought to persuade counterparts in the G7 that Chinese industrial policies, subsidies, and outright trade restrictions are a first-order threat to Western living standards.

If last week’s G7 Finance Ministers and Central Bankers’ communiqué is anything to go by, the US has succeeded. The third paragraph of this declaration states: “We will enhance cooperation to address non-market policies and practices and distortive policies, including those leading to overcapacity through a wide range of policy tools and rules to ensure a global level playing field. While reaffirming our interest in a balanced and reciprocal collaboration, we express concerns about China’s comprehensive use of non-market policies and practices that undermine our workers, industries, and economic resilience.”

The way the G7 works is that prominent statements found high up in the Finance Ministers’ communiqué tend to find their way into their Leaders’ Declaration. Ultimately, the question is whether the G7 will back these words with deeds. A similar declaration in June 2023 by the US and five allies (three are G7 members) went nowhere — or, at best, can be viewed as coalition-building. Given the divisions in Europe between firms and governments over the merits of decoupling with China, concerted action by the G7 against China this year is far from assured.

Still, the fractures in the world economy are widening. Executives who operate or source from Chinese firms in sectors where there is said to be excess capacity in China should be on alert. Those sectors include, at minimum, aluminum, cement, construction, electric vehicles, solar panels, and steel. That Chinese exports blocked from the US can be deflected to other foreign markets means executives from Western Europe, Japan, and emerging markets need to keep trade policy developments on their radar as well.

Simon J. Evenett is currently a Professor of Economics at the University of St. Gallen and on 1 August 2024 will join the Faculty at IMD. He is also Co-Chair of the WEF’s Global Council on Trade & Investment and the Founder of the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade, home of two of the leading independent monitors of how governments shape international business.

To read the full column as it was published by IMD, click here.