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Editorial: New US steel tariffs an arrogant test of commitment to 'America First'

International order cannot exist if a major superpower is permitted to go unchallenged when it belittles the rules and pressures others to make concessions.

U.S. President Donald Trump made the decision to limit imports of steel and other products through stiff tariffs, which will go into effect at the end of next week. It is an extremely unusual ultra-protectionist policy.

One of the problems with the tariffs is the suspicion that they may be in violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. The U.S. argues that the import of cheap steel is pushing U.S. military-related industries toward decline, and therefore putting national security at risk. The WTO, however, recognizes such an argument only in limited cases, such as when a country is in the midst of a military contingency. The Trump administration seems to be using this reasoning as a mere political maneuver.

Of further concern is that Japan and the European Union are included in the list of countries on which the new tariffs will be applied, and that the U.S. government has made clear that whether Japan and the EU will be exempted from the tariffs in the future will depend on how much they contribute to U.S. trade and defense.

Japan and the EU immediately requested tariff exemptions, but there's a possibility that the U.S., in exchange, will demand market-opening measures and increases in defense spending. This puts the U.S. at an advantage when it comes to bilateral negotiations, because of its overwhelming economic and military power. It's virtually a test to see if Japan and the EU will embrace President Trump's "America First" policy.

Trump has named U.S. trade deficit reduction as his utmost priority. Using his heavy-handed trade policy as a threat, Trump is intent on producing results ahead of midterm elections this coming fall.

But what the U.S. originally saw as problematic was China, an exporter of inexpensive steel. Employing import restrictions in trade deals with allies runs counter to the rationale behind the tariffs, which cites national security as its basis.

The premise of free trade, which has supported the world economy, is multilateral collaboration.

Attempts to protect one country's industries through stiff tariffs only lead to rising prices on imported goods, negatively impacting the economy. National interests are better met through mutual market liberalization and the boosting of trade.

When clashes erupt over trade, the general rule is to seek solutions according to WTO protocol -- rather than turning to unilateral import restrictions.

As a world leader, the U.S. has a responsibility to initiate and foster global collaboration. Plunging headlong into an "America First" trade policy will shake the foundations of free trade to their core.

To retaliate, the EU has begun preparations to impose tariffs on iconic U.S. brand products. China has also hinted at retaliatory strikes against the U.S. A trade war would lead to chaos in the global economy, which ultimately will not benefit the U.S.

Japan, too, should not only be concerned about getting its products exempt from stiff U.S. tariffs. It also has a responsibility to maintain the free trade framework as a major power. The Japanese government should join the EU and other parties to urge the U.S. to rescind its new tariffs.

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