The mystifying list of things that Trump is happy to let China export to the US tariff-free

Americans can still buy bakery and biscuit ovens duty-free.
Americans can still buy bakery and biscuit ovens duty-free.
Image: Unsplash/Jade Wulfraat via CC0
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Donald Trump fired another salvo in his trade war against China on Friday (June 15), announcing 25% tariffs on an estimated $50 billion worth of Chinese goods.

The tariffs mean that US businesses and consumers will likely be shelling out more money for certain items.  But Americans have dodged at least a few bullets. Trump’s original tariff list, announced back in April, included 1,333 items. After fielding comments from the public and trade experts, the administration has winnowed the targets down a bit. Now only 818 products (worth about $34 billion) will initially face the 25% tariff, which goes into effect July 6. (The Trump administration is still considering 284 product lines (pdf), estimated to be worth around $16 billion.)

The items that got cut from the original list offer somewhat bemusing insight into the Trump administration’s understanding of American priorities—and expose just how reliant the US is upon China for many basic goods.

Which Chinese products were exempted from US tariffs?

The list “focuses on products from industrial sectors that contribute to or benefit from” China’s industrial policy, according to the administration, and “does not include goods commonly purchased by American consumers such as cellular telephones or televisions.” In other words, the tariffs are meant to hit China where it hurts, while sparing Americans from spending more on particularly valued products.

The new tariff list does indeed spare TVs. But the Trump administration’s concern for US consumers extended far beyond the obvious. Chainsaws, hot-air balloons, snowmobiles, and trash compactors were subject to the 25% tariff back in April. No longer.

The 515 items spared from the tariffs include some other curiosities:

  • bakery and biscuit ovens
  • spaghetti-making machinery
  • brewery machines
  • sugar-making machines and parts
  • bookbinding machines
  • photocopiers
  • central heating boilers
  • foil
  • air conditioning frames
  • fire extinguishers and fire extinguisher parts
  • passenger and freight elevators
  • snowplows and snowblowers
  • golf carts
  • jukeboxes
  • chainsaws and parts
  • blowtorches
  • cash registers
  • non-refrigerated vending machines
  • strobe light parts
  • cigarette-making machines
  • “psychological aptitude testing apparatus”
  • “passenger boarding bridges other than the kinds used in airports”
  • dishwashers for domestic use (sorry, restaurants—commercial washers stayed on the list)

Scores of items taken off the list hint at just how much the US depends upon China for health-related products—vaccines, defibrillators, chemical contraceptives, diagnostic tests, dental fillings, hearing aids, and hormones, for example, have all been struck from Trump’s original list. (Meanwhile, a hundred or so steel and aluminum products were removed the list, presumably because they already are covered under tariffs Trump announced in March.)

Others are more baffling. The original list included several size classes of motorcycles and mopeds. The final tariff list nixed three of the less powerful motorcycle types. However, the US will still be levying tariffs on Chinese-made bikes of the biggest engine size (think Harley-Davidsons). That’s odd given that, since 2011, the US imported less than $21,700 worth of these from China.

Meanwhile, three other categories of electric motorbikes have been added to the roster of 284 product lines newly under investigation for benefiting from Chinese industrial policies. That makes a bit more sense given the Chinese government’s promotion of electric vehicle technology, though it’s hard to see mopeds as a source of Chinese industrial might.

Meanwhile, the changes to the list seem designed to ensure that Americans still have easy access to weapons. Telescopic sights for machines and appliances will now face a 25% tariff—those used for rifles and “other arms” are no longer included. In fact, the whole sweeping range of weaponry included in the April list has now been cut. Americans will still be able to enjoy duty-free prices on Chinese rocket launchers, flame-throwers, shotguns, ammunition, pistols, grenade launchers and imports classified as “bombs, grenades, torpedoes, mines, missiles and similar munitions of war.” And, yes, the US does import a few million dollars worth of those goods each year.

Another 284 products may be added to the tariff list pending more discussion and a public hearing. That list is primarily composed of industrial chemicals, machinery, and machine parts. But it too includes items seemingly unrelated to China’s state-sponsored manufacturing might. To be on the safe side, Americans might want to stock up on floating docks and “direction-finding compasses” before the trade war’s next front opens up.