American and European officials are planning new trade talks this week as U.S. allies seek ways to avoid steel and aluminum tariffs and China signaled it is poised to retaliate if President Donald Trump implements his biggest “America first” economic action to date.
Mr. Trump’s tariffs declaration Thursday has rattled two of the U.S.’s biggest economic partners, Japan and the European Union. The two economies together account for about a quarter of America’s annual trade in goods, and leaders from both stressed serious concern over the weekend, calling on U.S. officials to exclude them from the measures as close security and trade allies.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and their Japanese counterpart, Hiroshige Seko, in Brussels on Saturday. Officials didn’t immediately comment on the timing and format of the further talks slated for this week.
U.K. Trade Secretary Liam Fox is also expected to speak with U.S. officials during a trip to Washington this week.
Mr. Trump, for his part, appears to be unwavering in his plans, saying at a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania late Saturday, after the Brussels meeting, that the metals tariffs are his “baby.” Separately, in a tweet Saturday, Mr. Trump said: “The European Union, wonderful countries who treat the U.S. very badly on trade, are complaining about the tariffs on steel & aluminum. If they drop their horrific barriers & tariffs on U.S. products going in, we will likewise drop ours.” Mr. Trump also reiterated his objective to close America’s trade deficit with the EU: “If not, we Tax Cars etc. FAIR!”
Ms. Malmstrom said after a meeting with Mr. Lighthizer that there was “no immediate clarity on the exact U.S. procedure for exemption however, so discussions will continue next week.”
“I firmly and clearly expressed my view that this is regrettable,” Mr. Seko said about the tariff move at a news conference after the meeting with Mr. Lighthizer. “I explained that this could have a bad effect on the entire multilateral trading system,” the Japanese envoy said.
EU officials have said they wouldn’t enter into trade negotiations in exchange for waivers from the import tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum. Ms. Malmstrom, during her meeting with the president’s trade representative, reiterated that Brussels was ready to respond in kind unless Washington granted Europe an exemption—despite concerns in Germany over the president’s threat to retaliate with duties on European cars.
The EU has warned that, unless Washington grants the bloc an exemption, it would impose €2.8 billion ($3.5 billion) of levies on certain American products, challenge Mr. Trump’s move at the World Trade Organization and enact measures to safeguard European industries from steel and aluminum exports diverted from U.S. markets.
On Sunday, China’s commerce minister, Zhong Shan, said that Beijing doesn’t want a trade war and wouldn’t initiate one but reiterated that the government is ready to retaliate. “We can handle any challenge,” Mr. Zhong said at a briefing Sunday in Beijing.
The Trump administration hasn’t settled on an exact plan for excluding countries from the tariffs, although officials said Mexico and Canada, already facing broad trade negotiations with Washington, wouldn’t face tariffs on metals exports for the time being.
The U.S. still appears to be formulating its guidelines on waivers, which may be published soon, according to people familiar with the weekend’s discussions. A spokeswoman at the U.S. trade representative’s office declined to comment.
In Washington, the planned tariffs were creating some awkward political divisions, as Republican lawmakers in TV appearances openly discussed legislation to limit the GOP president’s trade powers while prominent Democrats backed Mr. Trump’s move. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who has frequently clashed with Mr. Trump publicly, declined to criticize his policy during her appearance on CNN.
The Trump administration is imposing the metal tariffs under a 1960s law that allows for trade barriers on national-security grounds. “On the issue of steel and aluminum, those specific industries are critical to U.S. national security,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said Sunday on ABC.
A worker checking equipment at a steel company in Dalian, China, last week.