U.S. launches national security probe of vehicle imports

The Trump administration launches a national security investigation into car and truck imports that could lead to new U.S. tariffs similar to those imposed on imported steel and aluminum in March.

Move could put pressure on Canada and Mexico as NAFTA talks stall over auto sector issues

An assembly line worker moves a door into position on a Chevrolet Volt at the General Motors Hamtramck Assembly plant in Michigan in this 2011 file photo. The U.S. Commerce Department said Wednesday car and truck imports may have 'eroded' the U.S. auto sector. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

The Trump administration on Wednesday launched a national security investigation into car and truck imports that could lead to new U.S. tariffs similar to those imposed on imported steel and aluminum in March.

The Commerce Department said the probe under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 would investigate whether vehicle and parts imports were threatening the industry's health and ability to research and develop new, advanced technologies.

"There is evidence suggesting that, for decades, imports from abroad have eroded our domestic auto industry," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement, promising a "thorough, fair and transparent investigation."

The move opens a new front in Trump's "America First" trade agenda aimed at clawing back manufacturing jobs lost to overseas competitors.

In addition to the 25 per cent tariffs on steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminum, the administration has threatened tariffs on $50-billion worth of Chinese goods over intellectual property complaints. It is also trying to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to return more auto production to the United States.

Commerce said the probe would determine whether lost domestic production had weakened the U.S. "internal economy" and its ability to develop connected vehicle systems, autonomous vehicles, fuel cells, electric motors and batteries and advanced manufacturing processes.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the auto sector is 'critical' to national strength. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In a separate statement, President Donald Trump said: "Core industries such as automobiles and automotive parts are critical to our strength as a nation."

Pressure on Canada

A Trump administration official said before the announcement that the expected move was aimed partly at pressuring Canada and Mexico to make concessions in talks to update NAFTA that have languished in part over auto provisions, as well as pressuring Japan and the European Union, which also export large numbers of vehicles to the United States.

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump told reporters that Canada and Mexico have been "very difficult" and "spoiled" at the bargaining table. 

He also appeared to foreshadow the national security investigation, saying via Twitter: "There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers."

An ad hoc industry group representing the largest Japanese, German and other foreign automakers called Here for America criticized the effort.

"The U.S. auto industry is thriving and growing," said John Bozzella, chief executive of Global Automakers, a trade group representing Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Hyundai Motor Co. and others, who also speaks for the broader group.

Bozzella noted 12 million cars and trucks were produced in the United States last year. "To our knowledge, no one is asking for this protection. This path leads inevitably to fewer choices and higher prices for cars and trucks in America," Bozzella said.

Threat against EU

Trump has railed against European auto imports and tariffs, and in March threatened to impose a tax on cars from the EU

German automakers Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and BMW AG all have large U.S. assembly plants. The United States is the second-biggest export destination for German auto manufacturers after China, while vehicles and car parts are Germany's biggest source of export income.

In March, Germany's automotive industry association said a trade war between the U.S. and Europe "must be avoided at all costs."

A worker shines the grille of a new Volkswagen at the Paris Motor Show in September 2016. Trump has railed against European auto imports and tariffs, and in March threatened to impose a tax on cars from the EU. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

The United States imported 8.3 million vehicles in 2017 worth $192 billion, including 2.4 million from Mexico, 1.8 million from Canada, 1.7 million from Japan, 930,000 from South Korea and 500,000 from Germany, according to U.S. government statistics. At the same time, the United States exported nearly two million vehicles worldwide worth $57 billion.

Asked if the measures would hit Mexico and Canada, a Mexican source close to the NAFTA talks said: "That probably is going to be the next battle." 

With files from CBC News