Scott Morrison plays down report US planning tariffs on Australian aluminium

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison has downplayed – but not denied – speculation the United States considered placing trade tariffs on Australian aluminium imports last week.

The New York Times reported that the Trump administration had discussed placing tariffs on Australian aluminium, which, under a deal struck by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, remains exempt from tariffs Donald Trump placed on metal imports to the US in 2018.

The NYT reported the White House decided against making any changes to the Australian arrangement after defence and diplomatic advisers cautioned against any actions which could potentially alienate a key ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking in the Solomon Islands, Morrison did not deny the report, but said Australia remained in communication with the States.

“We have an arrangement with the United States and we are working within that arrangement and working closely with the US officials and the White House on all those issues,” he said.

Trump himself also downplayed the report, but did not deny it, as he boarded a helicopter at the White House earlier on Monday.

“The Australian situation is interesting, but the relationship is very strong. No, we’re doing a very, a very special relationship with Australia,” he said.

Turnbull negotiated the exemptions, which protect Australia from the 25% steel tariff and 10% aluminium tariff introduced by Trump in late 2017. Other countries, including South Korea and Argentina, were awarded temporary reprieves in exchange for supply limits after Trump signed the tariffs into existence.

Since then, Australian aluminium exporters have seen their imports to the US jump by about 45% between 2017 and 2018, and a reported 350% in the first quarter of 2019, compared with the same quarter last year.

It was those figures which reportedly saw US trade advisers suggest the tariffs, citing concerns Australian aluminium was flooding the market and undercutting local suppliers.

But despite the increases, Australian suppliers still only make up 6% of total aluminium imports to the United States.

With Trump itching for trade fights, having already sparked confrontations with traditional allies including Canada, Europe and most recently, Mexico, officials in Canberra remain wary Australia’s exemptions could be scrapped.

The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, said Australia continued to work within the arrangement set out by the US, but also made it clear Australia was not overstepping its bounds or taking advantage of the exemptions.

“There has been no dumping of Australian aluminium into the US or any other market,” Birmingham said in a statement.

“Australia’s aluminium producers trade at market prices in a competitive environment, receiving no government subsidies or similar support.

“The US and Australia are great allies as well as economic partners and we continue to work cooperatively to build on our close and mutually beneficial trade and investment ties.”

Australia remains a key defence partner for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, a relationship which continues to grow in importance in the wake of China’s growing influence in the region.

Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, recently announced he would not be seeking to renew his term, with senator Arthur Sinodinos announced as his replacement.