Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Here Comes the Chinese Retaliation?

Over the last few weeks, I've cautioned that America's absurd ethanol policies and the new US WTO complaint against Chinese "green subsidies" (which arose from the United Steelworkers' Section 301 petition) could spark new trade disputes targeting US exports.  Today comes news that China might be getting the ol' retaliation ball rolling with an anti-dumping investigation that fits both of my criteria perfectly (emphasis mine):
China, the world’s biggest grains user, has started an anti-dumping investigation into U.S. shipments of dried distillers’ grains, an animal feed ingredient, adding to tensions in ongoing trade disputes.
The government will probe for unfair trade practices on products imported in the year ended June 30 after receiving complaints from four domestic ethanol producers, the Ministry of Commerce said on its website today. Distillers’ grains, commonly known as DDGS, is a by-product from making corn-based ethanol.
The probe is likely to further strain commercial ties with the U.S. a month before President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit Washington. China’s surging livestock production has spurred imports of animal feed ingredients including corn, soybeans and DDGS.
“This case against U.S. DDGS probably isn’t an isolated incident and must be observed in the context of the two sides’ trade relations,” Li Qiang, managing director at Shanghai JC, said by phone. “The investigation outcome may not support the charge because prices of imported DDGS have been higher, so it’ll be difficult to establish damages based on price,”
Imports of DDGS may jump nearly fivefold to over 3 million metric tons this year, according to Li. Still, the probe “may not have significant impact beyond the initial concern.”...
The investigation comes after the U.S. last week filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization against China over support for its wind-energy manufacturers. A government fund for wind manufacturers requires recipients to use domestically made parts, violating WTO rules, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said. China responded by saying its policies were in line with the regulations.
Last month China said it would extend an anti-dumping probe on U.S. sports utility vehicles and large sedans and in October it said it would consider appealing a WTO decision to reject the bulk of its complaints against U.S. duties on imports of steel pipes....
The ministry will begin the investigation today and will likely conclude the probe within a year, the ministry’s statement said. The probe may be extended under exceptional circumstances to June 2012, it said.
Yes, this new investigation could just be a big coincidence.  Then again, the last time that the United States announced that it was targeting China in response to a USW petition under an arcane provision of US trade law (Section 421), the Chinese immediately responded with two new anti-dumping (and countervailing duty) investigations of US chicken and automobile exports.  And with US ethanol tariffs and subsidies angering producers around the world, it's no surprise at all that China's Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) had this petition the Chinese industry sitting around. (Unlike the more transparent US system, AD/CVD petitions are submitted confidentially in China, and MOFCOM has complete discretion re: whether and when to initiate an investigation.)  So you can draw your own conclusions as to whether this qualifies as "retaliation," or whether it's just a long-overdue Chinese response to bad US behavior on ethanol.  Either way, it's not good for US exporters of DDGS.

And speaking of naughty US ethanol policies, I must admit that I didn't foresee the DDGS case itself and instead was warning about potential countervailing duty investigations of subsidized US ethanol.  But the Chinese DDGS anti-dumping case is hardly surprising because, while it wasn't the direct result of US ethanol tariffs and subsidies, it's almost certainly the indirect result of these policies, as they inevitably increase domestic production (and thus lower prices) of the ethanol byproduct DDGS.  So while other DDGS cases could be on the way, we still could also see new investigations targeting US exports of the subsidized ethanol itself.  We shall see.

One last trade-lawyerly point: I'm not exactly sure what Li Qiang means when he/she says that the case might not result in anti-dumping duties against US exports because DDGS import prices are higher than domestic prices.  This could be a legitimate point if we're talking about proving that US DDGS imports materially injured the Chinese injury, but injury cases are very complex, and simple average unit value (AUV) comparisons are a pretty poor indicator of a "material injury" determination (and those import volume increases provide strong support for an injury finding).  On the other hand, Li is mistaken if he/she thinks an affirmative dumping finding will be difficult in this case because DDGS import prices are higher than domestic prices.  (Recall that the imposition of anti-dumping duties requires affirmative findings of both dumping and injury.)  Dumping occurs when import prices are lower than prices in the home (US) market or cost-of-production (aka "Normal Value"), so domestic (Chinese) prices are inapposite.  Li probably means the former scenario, but it's impossible to tell.  Chalk it up to shoddy reporting, I guess.

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