February 27, 2021

Chasing Rare Earths, Foreign Companies Expand in China

Now, corporate executives say, it is using its near monopoly on certain raw materials — in particular, scarce metals vital to products like hybrid cars, cellphones and energy-efficient light bulbs — to make it difficult for foreign high-tech manufacturers to relocate or expand factories in China. Companies that continue making their products outside the country must contend with tighter supplies and much higher prices for the materials because of steep taxes and other export controls imposed by China over the last two years.

Companies like Showa Denko and Santoku of Japan and Intematix of the United States are adding new factory capacity in China this year instead of elsewhere because they need access to the raw materials, known as rare earth metals.

“We saw the writing on the wall — we simply bought the equipment and ramped up in China to begin with,” said Mike Pugh, director of worldwide operations for Intematix, who noted that the company would have preferred to build its new factory near its Fremont, Calif., headquarters.

While seemingly obscure, China’s policy on rare earths appears to be directed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao himself, according to Chinese officials and documents. Mr. Wen, a geologist who studied rare earths at graduate school in Beijing in the 1960s, has led at least two in-depth reviews of rare earths this year at the State Council, China’s cabinet. And during a visit to Europe last autumn, he said that little happened on rare earth policy without him.

China’s tactics on rare earths probably violate global trade rules, according to governments and business groups around the world.

A panel of the World Trade Organization, the main arbiter of international trade disputes, found last month that China broke the rules when it used virtually identical tactics to restrict access to other important industrial minerals. China’s commerce ministry announced on Wednesday that it would appeal the ruling.

No formal case has yet been brought concerning rare earths because officials from affected countries are waiting to see the final resolution of the other case, which has already lasted more than two years.

Karel De Gucht, the European Union’s trade commissioner, cited the industrial minerals decision in declaring last month that, “in the light of this result, China should ensure free and fair access to rare earth supplies.”

Shen Danyang, a spokesman for the commerce ministry, reiterated at a news conference on Wednesday in Beijing that China believed its mineral export policies complied with W.T.O. rules. China’s legal position, outlined in recent W.T.O. filings, is that its policies qualify for an exception to international trade rules that allows countries to limit exports for environmental protection and to conserve scarce supplies.

But the W.T.O. panel has already rejected this argument for the other industrial minerals, on the grounds that China was only curbing exports and not limiting supplies available for use inside the country.

China mines more than 90 percent of the world’s rare earths, and accounted for 60 percent of the world’s consumption by tonnage early this year.

But if factories continue to move to China at their current rate, China will represent 70 percent of global consumption by early next year, said Constantine Karayannopoulos, the chief executive of Neo Material Technologies, a Canadian company that is one of the largest processors in China of raw rare earths.

For the last two years, China has imposed quotas to limit exports of rare earths to about 30,000 tons a year. Before then, factories outside the country had been consuming nearly 60,000 tons a year.

China has also raised export taxes on rare earths to as much as 25 percent, on top of value-added taxes of 17 percent.

Rare earth prices have soared outside China as users have bid frantically for limited supplies. Cerium oxide, a rare earth compound used in catalysts and glass manufacturing, now costs $110,000 per metric ton outside China. That is more than four times the price inside China, and up from $3,100 two years ago, according to Asian Metal, an industry data company based in Pittsburgh.

For most industrial products that are manufactured in China using rare earths and then exported, China imposes no quotas or export taxes, and frequently no value-added taxes either.

Companies do that math, and many decide it is more cost-effective to move to China to get cheaper access to the crucial metals.

Kantaro Suzuki in Tokyo and Jonathan Ansfield in Beijing contributed reporting.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4282ea2119b62431d4884591fa06887b

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