Stoughton opened its Evansville plant in 1993 to build the intermodal containers and chassis that are the basic infrastructure of global trade. It prospered until the early 2000s, when China International Marine Containers started offering chassis in the United States at a price lower than what Stoughton paid for raw materials. The Wisconsin company largely suspended chassis production in 2006. In recent years, the Chinese company made more than 80 percent of the new chassis sold in the United States.
When Mr. Trump decided to impose 25 percent tariffs on a wide range of Chinese goods in 2018, chassis did not appear on the list. It was added after Cheetah Chassis, a Pennsylvania manufacturer that had survived by focusing on niche markets, mounted a lobbying campaign portraying Chinese chassis as a classic example of the unfair trade practices Mr. Trump was seeking to punish. Cheetah’s chairman, Frank Katz, dismissed the complaints of trucking companies that tariffs would result in higher prices. “What they really mean is that they want to continue to buy chassis at unfairly low prices,” he said.
Cheetah also rang the national security bell, hiring a lobbying firm to argue to trade officials that “the very free flow of commerce within the United States is at risk.” Of course, that’s true of many other goods, too, and a country that tries to make everything by itself will not in the end be more secure. It will be poorer, weaker and isolated.
Unsatisfied with the 25 percent tariff, domestic chassis makers sought a ruling that China was unfairly subsidizing C.I.M.C., which would trigger even larger tariffs. They argued that C.I.M.C. should face additional penalties because it rushed extra chassis to the United States in 2018 before the Trump tariffs had taken effect. Bob Wahlin, Stoughton’s chief executive, had failed in 2015 in a bid to persuade regulators to impose tariffs on cargo containers from China. This time was different. This past May, the government enacted additional tariffs on chassis, raising the total import tax to an astonishing 246 percent. A C.I.M.C. chassis that sold for $10,000 a few years ago would now cost almost $35,000.
One predictable effect is that chassis imports from Mexico have more than tripled since 2017. Another is that ports and trucking companies can’t find enough chassis. American businesses expect to produce about 15,000 chassis this year, enough to meet less than half of the annual demand. The South Carolina Ports Authority, which announced plans to buy 13,000 chassis earlier this year, now says it doesn’t expect to take delivery until 2023.
But Cheetah and Stoughton got what they wanted. Mr. Wahlin said that his company expected to be making 200 chassis a week by January, and that it planned to open a new factory in the Southern United States to help increase production to 500 chassis a week. He hopes to add a total of about 500 workers at wages starting at $18 an hour.
The victory, however, is fragile. The punitive tariffs on Chinese chassis will last five years, which is intended to let American companies find their footing in the market. That may make sense in emerging sectors, like solar power. But if companies in mature industries can’t compete today, how will they be able to compete tomorrow?