U.S. sends the right message with WTO complaint on China’s illegal restrictions on rare earth exports

The Obama administration filed a complaint on Tuesday at the World Trade Organization challenging China’s restraints on its exports of rare earth minerals. This much-needed action will be good for both consumers and workers in the United States and other countries. China reacted immediately, promising to defend its actions and threatening that it could trigger further trade disputes. China’s export restraints are a clear violation of its WTO obligations, and it doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this dispute. Ending those restraints will lower prices for a wide range of high-tech products such as solar cells and hybrid and electric vehicles, and it will stimulate job creation in the United States.

The administration’s trade complaint covers tungsten and molybdenum (minerals used in steel production) in addition to rare earths, and includes over 100 specific products. Under the terms of its accession to the WTO, China was allowed to retain export duties at specified rates on 84 commodities. However, it maintains tariffs as well as quotas and other illegal restrictions on exports on rare earths and other metals. China controls 95 percent of the world’s production of rare earths minerals, which are critical ingredients in high-tech manufacturing of products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars to missiles.  None of the items covered in the administration’s WTO complaint are included in the list of 84 items that China is entitled to restrict with export duties.

Production of rare earths can be damaging to the environment. In 2009, China stopped issuing new licenses for rare earth mines, closed some illegal mines and set domestic production caps. If applied with equal effect to domestic and export sales, such restrictions would be legitimate under the WTO. Higher prices for rare earths will eventually encourage production in other countries that have large deposits, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, South Africa and the United States, but new mines will take five or more years to develop.

By restricting and  taxing rare earth exports, China reduces the costs of these critical materials for their own domestic producers and raises the costs for producers in the rest of the world. Japan and the EU jointly filed the WTO case with the United States. Recent industry data show that the export price of a basket of rare earths from China was more than 120 percent higher than China’s domestic price for the same basket of minerals. Thus, China’s rare earth restrictions unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of its own domestic producers and raise the cost of high-tech products to consumers in the U.S. and other countries. Three U.S. manufacturers of photovoltaic cells, including Solyndra and Everygreen Solar,  have recently declared bankruptcy in the face of cut-throat, subsidized competition from Chinese manufacturers who benefit from plentiful access to cheap rare earths.

China’s illegal policy of restricting rare earth exports is just one of many examples of its unfair trade practices. Massive subsidies to key industries such as auto parts, glass and paper are also hurting domestic industries, and currency manipulation by China and other Asian countries has cost the United States millions of jobs. We applaud strong action by the administration in these cases and look forward to continued strong enforcement of all U.S. fair trade laws by the administration’s planned Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.

–The author thanks Monique Morrissey for comments