Presumptive President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a more measured and multilateral approach to trade policy than President Trump, observers say, but is also unlikely to make significant short-term changes to the tariffs and other restrictions imposed by his predecessor.

Nicole Bivens Collinson, head of ST&R’s government relations practice, will discuss trade policy under Biden in a Nov. 19 webinar. Click here to register for the webinar on demand, or for more information.

Press reports, citing experts and analysts, indicate that a President Biden will have little political room to reduce or eliminate the Section 301 tariffs currently in place on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods imported from China. Biden has criticized Trump for the manner in which he imposed the tariffs, which are widely acknowledged to have burdened the U.S. businesses and consumers who ultimately pay them. However, he has also expressed a willingness to utilize tariffs when necessary, though he has pledged to consult with allies as part of that process. Considering that both Republicans and Democrats now appear to agree on the need for the U.S. to take a tougher line on trade with China, while Biden may not levy any new tariffs on China, at least in the near future, he also will likely maintain those already in place until a better solution to the problems the tariffs were designed to address becomes available.

Similarly, there is expected to be little to no change in the existing Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum products, industries that are typically sensitive to imports in the best of times and especially so now amid the pandemic-related economic uncertainty. However, there could be room to adjust or eliminate the Section 301 tariffs on imports from the European Union if a Biden administration opts to negotiate a resolution to the two sides’ long-running dispute over aircraft subsidies.

Biden is expected to focus primarily on domestic policy, particularly economic recovery and alleviating the pandemic, and so is unlikely to pursue any new trade agreements in the near term. Ongoing talks with the United Kingdom and Kenya will probably continue, but phase two agreements with China and Japan, as well as “mini-deals” with Brazil, India, and others, will likely be on hold for the foreseeable future. The U.S. is also unlikely to pursue membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, at least in the near term, and if it does so in the future it will be under revised terms.

On the other hand, a Biden administration is expected to be much more amenable to multilateral cooperation, including within international institutions such as the World Trade Organization. Biden has said he intends to enlist the help of major trading partners to resolve longstanding trade grievances with China. Toward that end, the White House is likely to be more proactive in advancing efforts to secure reforms at the WTO that will enable that body to more effectively address not only China but also a raft of other 21st century trade issues. The administration could also seek to increase engagement with others on the trade impacts of issues such as digital services taxes, worker rights, and climate change.

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