China's steel exports are ramping up, exacerbating disputes with the U.S., Europe and other trading partners, who for years have claimed Beijing unfairly subsidizes its steel producers and sells products globally at below market prices.
The trade friction isn't new. But a recent increase in China's steel exports--to their highest level in six years in April--has heightened the tensions. Earlier this month, the U.S. imposed preliminary tariffs of 159.2% on Chinese grain-oriented electrical steel, which is used to make transformers.
China's government vowed last year to cut excess capacity in its state-owned steel industry. But production has continued apace as Beijing worries about slowing economic growth. Tuesday, the government said China's crude steel production in April rose 2% to a record daily average of 2.3 million metric tons. The previous record was set in March.
China's steel exports rose to 7.54 million tons in April, their highest since August 2008--shortly before the global economy nose-dived in a financial crisis. Last year, steel exports totaled 62.3 million tons, just shy of the record level set in 2007.
Production is strong even though domestic demand has weakened. In the first quarter, China's economy grew at its slowest pace in 18 months. Infrastructure projects and shipbuilding offset some of the declining demand from the property sector, but analysts say exports are playing a bigger role as a valve for China's steel mills.
The U.S. Department of Commerce recently made a preliminary determination that grain-oriented electrical steel from China is being dumped in the U.S. In March, U.S. trade officials said such Chinese steel was benefiting from unfair government subsidies. Analysts say U.S. steel companies are ramping up efforts to get Washington to increase tariffs on Chinese steel imports.
The state-backed China Iron and Steel Association has described the tariffs as protectionist and says Beijing's policy is to fulfill domestic demand rather than encourage high volume steel exports.
The association's deputy secretary-general Chi Jingdong said Chinese steel exports are rising because they are globally competitive, though he added that friction was understandable given the slow economic recovery in the developed world.
Even though output expansion is likely to slow over the year, the government says 2014 could be another bumper year for steel production in China.
In February, European steel lobby Eurofer said it planned to file antidumping complaints this year with the European Commission against Chinese exports of cold-rolled stainless steel. The agency couldn't immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Southeast Asian countries, Canada and Australia have also launched antidumping investigations into Chinese steel products in recent years.
Low-cost construction steel exports still dominate China's trade with emerging regions such as Southeast Asia, said Suaik Lim, a director at Fitch Ratings. 'It may not lead as much to political friction, but it will lead to trade protection repercussions,' Mr. Lim said.
While Southeast Asian nations haven't conducted a full-fledged trade war with China, they often join with the U.S. or other large jurisdictions as third parties in disputes taken to the World Trade Organization. Third parties are allowed to submit their views and findings to dispute panels.
In a report last year, the China Iron and Steel Association urged its members to favor higher value-added products over cheap construction steel. 'As trade friction with China rises, China's exporters must adjust export policies,' it said.
Prices of iron-ore, a key steel ingredient, have fallen to around $102 a ton, their lowest level since September 2012. While a limited package of official stimulus measures are underpinning steel demand in China's railway and urban housing sectors, Chinese steelmakers are still reeling from the domestic slowdown. Construction-steel prices were down 6% in the first quarter, as China's largest steelmakers posted a combined loss of 2.3 billion yuan ($368.6 million) in the period, their worst performance since 2000.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images2010年12月，安徽合肥一家钢铁厂中的工人。
受到国家支持的中国钢铁工业协会(China Iron and Steel Association)曾反复表示，征收惩罚性关税是贸易保护主义做法，还说北京的政策是为了满足国内需求，而不是鼓励钢铁大量出口。
欧洲钢铁工业联盟(Eurofer) 2月份表示，计划今年针对中国冷轧不锈钢出口向欧盟委员会(European Commission)提起反倾销申诉。记者周二未能立即联系到该机构置评。
惠誉国际评级(Fitch Ratings)的林树毅(Suaik Lim)表示，廉价建筑钢材出口仍占中国与东南亚等新兴地区贸易的主导，这可能还不至于导致政治摩擦，但将引发贸易保护主义反制举措。
虽然东南亚国家未曾与中国发生过全面贸易战，但他们常常作为第三方在世界贸易组织(World Trade Organization)受理的贸易纠纷中与美国或其他大的司法辖区站在一边。第三方可向争端解决小组提交他们的意见和调查结果。