President Joe Biden faces a China trade dilemma. Image: Facebook

The White House is close to announcing investigations into Chinese use of industrial subsidies, the prelude to imposition of tariffs. The probes are known as “301s”, the section of US trade law that allows them.

If you import stuff from China that gets classified as requiring Section 301 import duties, you’ll have to pay that extra margin, which means US importers must either bear the costs on to consumers. They can appeal to the Court of International Trade for a refund, which then burdens the taxpayer and incurs administrative costs.

Former president Donald Trump used tariffs extensively as the main tool of his “trade war” with China and it achieved nothing other than the imposition of reciprocal tariffs from China. President Biden shares some of this economic nationalist sensibility, calling tariffs “the greatest negotiating tool in the history of our country.”

Maybe that’s true. But no tool does everything, and a tool’s value has to be judged against its purpose in context. So what’s the purpose behind wielding tariffs against China?

This is the problem. I have friends serving in the Biden Administration, and a lot of respect for people like Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell. But there’s a bit of a “best and brightest” problem in US policy toward China and Asia at the moment.

So much brain power in the administration, so much experience, and yet no realistic strategy. They’re either indecisive, or are deliberately avoiding being pinned down into clear, analytically defensible choices. I warned this would happen, and not due to the fault of any individuals. It’s a pathology within liberal internationalism.

Rather than dodging strategy in favor of endless crisis management, the White House ought to be asking a series of questions. What problem are we responding to? What are we trying to achieve? How will 301s and tariffs further that?

Container ships stream in and out of Ningbo Port in eastern China. China will divert its business elsewhere if the US erects more barriers. Photo: Xinhua

If your problem is Chinese influence abroad and your aim is to curb it, tariffs are precisely the wrong tool. Deterring firms from importing Chinese goods (or their own finished goods from China) will simply divert Chinese trade and capital to other locations around the world. And the more China can throw around cash, the more clout it will wield.

If your problem is the link between Chinese oligarchy and ethnonationalism (which I think is the core China problematique but that’s for another day), then tariffs are irrelevant. They simply don’t affect domestic inequality in China on their own.

In fact, the only strategic purpose that anti-subsidy tariffs advance is decoupling of the US and Chinese economies. Yet, there’s very little evidence that Biden wants to decouple though, and such a grand decision ought to be subjected to greater public debate if that’s the direction of things.

Ultimately, if we care about a foreign policy for the middle class, we shouldn’t be focused on Chinese industrial subsidies. We should be thinking about how to prevent US firms from exploiting China’s oppression of its own labor pool and the environment. The tariffs under discussion are at best incidental to that.

Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think-tanker at multiple places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defense & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast. This article was first published by The Duck of Minerva.