China has led an international backlash after Donald Trump confirmed plans to levy steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports – sparking fears of a global trade war.
Beijing on Friday described the decision to levy a 25% surcharge on steel and 10% on aluminium as a “serious attack on normal international trade order”.
European leaders have already threatened a series of retaliatory actions, singling out products such as orange juice, peanut butter, cranberries, bourbon whisky, motorcycles and jeans for tariffs in the event that Mr Trump pushed ahead with his plans, first floated last week.
The White House has since signalled a slight softening in the stance, granting temporary exemptions to neighbours Mexico and Canada.
Mr Trump also said that “flexibility and cooperation” would be shown to friendly countries – apparently linked to military cooperation. It remained unclear where Britain would stand though International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has already described the US strategy as “wrong”, while industry body UK Steel said it could have a “profound and detrimental impact”.
In a statement, the UK Government said “tariffs are not the right way to address the global problem of overcapacity”. It said the issue required a “multilateral solution”.
China – which produces half the world’s steel – said it was “resolutely opposed” to the decision, and would assess any damage caused. Beijing said it would “firmly defend its legitimate rights and interests”.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japan said the move would have a “big impact” on its close relations with the US while South Korea said it may file a complaint with the World Trade Organisation.
Mr Trump’s move came as even some within his own inner circle in Washington expressed deep unease over the action.
Leading Republican Paul Ryan is among those who have denounced it saying he feared its “unintended consequences”.
At a news conference on Thursday to announce the measures, Mr Trump said he was acting to protect “special people” in US industry who had fallen victim to “unfair dumping” practices from abroad for decades.
He insisted it was a national security issue as US manufacturers had struggled for too long against a tide of cheap products from abroad – reducing their competitiveness.
The result, he argued, had been a “decimation” of US communities from a sustained “assault”.
The President said that China currently imposed 25% tariffs on US-made cars while vehicles produced in China for the US market had a tax rate of just 2.5%. “We just want fairness,” he said.
The developments were largely expected by financial markets, which responded relatively calmly to confirmation of the tariff plan.
US stock markets, which had originally been spooked by the plan, closed in positive territory while steel and aluminium prices on commodity exchanges were stable.
Gareth Stace, the director of industry group UK Steel, said the tariffs “would have a profound and detrimental impact on the UK steel sector, which exported some 350,000 tonnes of products to the US in 2017, over 7% of its total exports”. He added: “The UK sector is in the midst of a fragile recovery following years of considerable turmoil, it would be utterly devastating if this were to be undermined.”