06DAVOS, Switzerland — The Trump administration is taking direct aim at Chinese solar panels and South Korean washing machines with new tariffs. The impact, however, will be felt more broadly.
The tariffs unveiled on Monday will apply to imports of washing machines and solar energy cells and panels from around the world, not just from China and South Korea. That’s deliberate: United States trade officials say Chinese and South Korean companies have set up factories in other countries to avoid existing American tariffs.
That means factories and workers in multiple countries will be affected, showing how difficult it can be to hit specific targets in the complicated world of modern trade.
Just to illustrate the complexities, Suniva, one of the American solar companies that had sought the tariffs, filed for bankruptcy protection last year, citing the effects of Chinese imports. But the majority owner of Suniva is itself Chinese, and the company’s American bankruptcy trustee supported the trade litigation over the objections of the Chinese owners.
China and South Korea could take their complaints to the World Trade Organization, which settles trade disputes. Under its obligations to the international body, the United States would have to back off if the organization ruled against it.
If Washington did not adhere to such a ruling, the World Trade Organization could authorize other countries to set similar trade limits. That could raise the question of whether the United States accepts the organization’s decisions. Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, has argued for years that such decisions should, essentially, be advisory.
China and South Korea have leverage of their own, as they are big importers of American-made machinery and agricultural products.
China, in particular, has long been a big buyer of soybeans and other crops from states that supported Mr. Trump in the 2016 election. And as an enormous consumer of the world’s goods, it could easily punish American companies that have international competitors, for instance by choosing Airbus planes over Boeing’s or punishing General Motors while leaving Volkswagen alone.
But a trade fight would be painful. Both China and South Korea export a lot more to the United States than they import, meaning higher tariffs could hit their economies harder.
The United States accuses China of swamping the market with artificially cheap, subsidized solar panels. But increasingly, those panels come from elsewhere.
Countries like Malaysia and South Korea now account for most of the United States’ solar imports, according to data from Global Trade Atlas, a database maintained by the research firm IHS Markit.
That is in part because an earlier round of American tariffs specifically targeting Chinese solar panels prompted those companies to open factories elsewhere. JA Solar and JinkoSolar, for example, have opened factories in Malaysia. Chinese companies still do much of their research and development at home, before shipping materials to other countries for assembly. Completed panels are then shipped to the United States.
Still, spreading the manufacturing base also means other countries may face job losses and other hardships thanks to United States tariffs, which could galvanize opposition to the move.
American companies in those industries have themselves also set up shop in places like Southeast Asia, said Rajiv Biswas, an economist at IHS Markit. “Due to the increasing integration of the Asian manufacturing supply chain,” he said in an email, “the impact of higher U.S. tariffs on solar panels and washing machines could have wider transmission effects beyond South Korea and China.”
President Trump is set to speak to world leaders gathered this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he could drop hints of whether the United States has more trade barriers to announce.
Washington could take action on aluminum or steel imports, two categories that have long vexed previous presidential administrations. It is also exploring a major trade action against China focused on intellectual property. “China’s regulatory authorities do not allow U.S. companies to make their own decisions about technology transfer and the assignment or licensing of intellectual property rights,” Mr. Lighthizer’s office said as part of a broader report last week, suggesting possible strong action.
The Trump administration’s move nevertheless leaves room for negotiation.
The tariffs announced on Monday were not as high as American companies had requested. With washing machines, for example, higher tariffs would not kick in until the United States imports 1.2 million finished washers.
He Weiwen, a former Chinese Commerce Ministry official who is now an influential trade policy researcher in Beijing, said Chinese policymakers had reacted with “strong dissatisfaction” to the tariffs. But he predicted that China’s response would at first be cautious, as officials wait to see how strong the other actions will be.
“We cannot expand to an overall trade war,” he added.