China condemned the White House's announcement late Friday as protectionist and said it violated global trade rules. At home, the punitive tariffs on all car and light truck tires coming into the U.S. from China may placate union supporters who are important to the president's health care push.
To the White House, it was "simply about enforcing the rules of the road and creating a trade system that is based on those rules and is fair for everyone," spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with Mr. Obama on Saturday to a health care event in Minneapolis.
Chen Deming, China's minister of commerce, said the penalties would hurt relations with the U.S. A ministry statement said President Obama had "compromised to the political pressure of the U.S. domestic trade protectionism."
"The Chinese government will continue to uphold the legitimate interests of China's domestic industry and has the right to take corresponding measures," Deming said.
President Obama had until this coming Thursday to accept, reject or modify a U.S. International Trade Commission ruling that a rising tide of Chinese tires into the U.S. hurts American producers. The United Steelworkers blames the increase for the loss of thousands of American jobs.
The federal trade panel recommended a 55 percent tariff in the first year, 45 percent in the second year and 35 percent in the third year. Obama settled on 35 percent the first year, 30 percent in the second and 25 percent in the third, Gibbs said
"For trade to work for everybody, it has to be based on fairness and rules. We're simply enforcing those rules and would expect the Chinese to understand those rules," Gibbs said.
The decision comes as U.S. officials are working with the Chinese and other nations to plan an economic summit in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24-25 of the 20 leading rich and developing nations. China will be a major presence at the meeting, and the United States will be eager to show it supports free trade.
Many of the nearly two dozen world leaders President Obama is hosting have made strong statements critical of countries that protect their key industries. Mr. Obama, too, has spoken out strongly against protectionism, and other countries will view his decision on tires as a test of that stance.
Governments around the world have suggested the U.S. talks tough against protectionism only when its own industries are not threatened. U.S. rhetoric on free trade also has been questioned because of a "Buy American" provision in the U.S. stimulus package.
The tire decision could have ramifications on issues such as the nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea and on efforts to address climate change. China is the world's third-largest economy and a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council.
Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association, which opposes the tariff, said it would not save American jobs. He said the penalties would cause tire manufacturers to move production to another country with less strict environmental and safety controls, less active unions and lower costs than the United States.
The steelworkers union brought the original case in April, accusing China of making a recent push to unload more tires ahead of Mr. Obama's expected action. The union says more than 5,000 tire workers have lost jobs since 2004, as Chinese tire overwhelmed the U.S. market.
The U.S. trade representative's office said four tire plants closed in 2006 and 2007 and three more are closing this year. During that time, just one new plant opened. U.S. imports of Chinese tires more than tripled from 2004 to 2008 and China's market share in the U.S. went from 4.7 percent of tires purchased in 2004 to 16.7 percent in 2008, the office said.
In a two-page statement China said the tariffs do not square with the facts.
There hasn't been an obvious increase of exports of tires to the U.S., the statement said, citing a 2.2 percent increase in 2008 from 2007, and a 16 percent fall in exports in the first half of 2009 compared with first half of 2008.
The new tariffs, on top of an existing 4 percent tariff on all tire imports, take effect Sept. 26.
For the Chinese government, the tire dispute threatens an economic relationship crucial to China's economic growth. There was speculation before the decision that new tariffs could produce public pressure on Beijing to retaliate, potentially leading to a trade war.
By AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven; AP writers Foster Klug in Washington and Henry Sanderson in Beijing contributed to this report