Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: White House won't keep extending tariff exemptions

Key Points
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says the U.S. will have to decide "very soon" whether to levy steel and aluminum tariffs on allies.
  • The U.S. on Monday extended exemptions from the tariffs for allies such as the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
  • Ross is also part of a U.S. delegation heading to China this week to talk about possible ways to address alleged trade abuses.
Sec. Ross: Tariff extension follows fruitful talks

If the Trump administration decides to slap steel and aluminum tariffs on some allies, it will have to do so "very soon," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Tuesday.

On Monday, the White House said it extended the May 1 deadline for tariff exemptions on allies such as the European Union, Canada and Mexico for another 30 days. Ross said the White House has "no intention of protracted extensions" and wants to make a decision soon to curb alleged trade abuses.

"If we're going to impose it, we're going to have to do it pretty soon, or else people will start gaming the system," the Commerce secretary told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Tuesday.

The U.S. and EU have held "potentially fruitful discussions," and Ross said he hopes the entities can potentially avoid tariffs. The Trump administration has already permanently exempted South Korea from tariffs because the country agreed to quotas under a new trade deal. It could also exempt countries such as Argentina, Australia and Brazil due to a separate agreement to address trade practices.

Trump has contended international dumping of steel and aluminum has hurt American producers of the metals. He proposed the tariffs in part to follow through on campaign promises to crack down on what he calls unfair trade practices.

Trump administration heads to China 

Sec. Ross: I go to China with some hope for progress

Ross is part of a U.S. delegation of top economic officials heading to China this week for trade discussions. Trump has criticized the U.S. trade deficit with China and pledged to fight alleged intellectual property theft by Chinese companies.

Washington and Beijing have proposed a series of escalating tariffs that threaten to damage the world's two largest economies. The Trump administration hopes it can reach a separate deal with China to avoid a possible increase in trade tensions.

Ross said it was "time for action" on alleged trade abuses by China. The Commerce secretary did not say whether he wanted to come back with a deal in hand, but expressed some optimism about the talks.

"I wouldn't be going all the way over there if I didn't think there was some hope," he said.

Ross contended that China has more to lose in negotiations because of its trade surplus with the U.S.