This morning the Obama administration lodged an official complaint with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body over China’s ongoing restrictions of exports of "Rare Earth" minerals. Rare Earths are crucial ingredients used in the production of flat-screen televisions, smart phones, hybrid automobile batteries, and other high technology products.
The formal complaint was not entirely unexpected since the dispute has been on a low boil for nearly 18 months; the U.S. government recently prevailed in a WTO dispute over a similar issue concerning Chinese export restrictions on nine raw materials used in manufacturing; and, this is an election year in which President Obama has carte blanche to outbid the Republican presidential aspirants’ China-bashing rhetoric with administrative action. So, no surprises really.
Despite the added political incentive to look tough on China this year, the administration should be applauded for its efforts to compel China to oblige its WTO commitments. This is a legitimate complaint following proper channels. In fact, this is exactly the course of action I have long argued for. Negotiations, consultations, and formal WTO dispute resolution (which begin with a long consultation period in which the parties are encouraged to find solutions without formal adjudication) are precisely the methods of dispute settlement conducted by governments that respect the process, their counterparts, and the rule of law in international trade.
In a Cato paper published last week, I wrote:
There is little doubt that certain other Chinese policies would not pass muster at the WTO. China's so-called indigenous innovation policies, forced technology transfer requirements, porous intellectual property enforcement regime, and rare earth mineral export restrictions are some of many legitimate concerns that might justify formal WTO challenges. (Emphasis added.)
Now, my perspective is not motivated by a fetish for WTO litigation, but a certainty that the alternatives would be bad. Unilateral, discretionary actions taken by governments to redress perceived violations or shortcomings of another government undermine the rule of law in trade and encourage retaliation. Both China and the United States are guilty of taking such unilateral, discretionary actions, and bilateral tensions have increased as a result (see here).
U.S. policymakers should appreciate that today’s formal complaint on rare earths is an example of the right way to address perceived trade barriers. They should also recognize in the arguments advanced by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative the flawed economics in their support of last week’s countervailing duty legislation (the so-called GPX or NME/CVD bill).
Here's the USTR's rationale for the Rare Earths complaint:
China imposes several different types of unfair export restraints on the materials at issue in today’s consultations request, including export duties, export quotas, export pricing requirements as well as related export procedures and requirements. Because China is a top global producer for these key inputs, its harmful policies artificially increase prices for the inputs outside of China while lowering prices in China. This price dynamic creates significant advantages for China’s producers when competing against U.S. producers – both in China’s market and in other markets around the world. The improper export restraints also contribute to creating substantial pressure on U.S. and other non-Chinese downstream producers to move their operations, jobs, and technologies to China.
And here's a quote from USTR Ron Kirk:
America’s workers and manufacturers are being hurt in both established and budding industrial sectors by these policies. China continues to make its export restraints more restrictive, resulting in massive distortions and harmful disruptions in supply chains for these materials throughout the global marketplace.
And here's Ambassador Kirk in a statement responding (a few months ago) to the WTO Appellate Body ruling that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments:
Today’s decision ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field.
And, finally, a statement from the USTR's website on the raw material export restrictions cases:
These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.
USTR's argument against Chinese export restrictions in the raw materials and Rare Earths cases are just as applicable to U.S. import restrictions. Removing restrictions—whether the export variety imposed by foreign governments or the import variety imposed by our own—reduces input prices, lowers domestic production costs, enables more competitive final-goods pricing and, thus, greater profits for U.S.-based producers.
Yet the U.S. government imposes its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials. It maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions). In fact, over 80 percent of the nearly 350 U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty measures in place restrict imports of raw materials and industrial inputs—ingredients required by U.S. producers in their own production processes. But those companies—those producers and workers for whom Ambassador Kirk professes to be going to bat in the WTO case on rare earths (and the previous raw materials case)—don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding whether to impose AD or CVD duties. (Full story here.)
Ambassador Kirk’s logic and the facts about who exactly is victimized by U.S. trade policies provide a compelling case for trade law reform, such as requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of AD/CVD measures on producers in downstream industries—companies like magnesium-cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.
Last week, when the CVD legislation passed both chambers overwhelmingly, Congress was implicitly thumbing their noses at these same producers and workers who the USTR rightly identifies as victims of Chinese trade restrictions. They are clearly victims of our own policies, derived in dark shadows by interests with asymmetric influence on the process. Maybe we should dwell on that hypocrisy for a while, and work to fix it by reconsidering the self-flagellation that is the U.S. trade remedies regime.