Right now, the Obama administration and the International Trade Commission (ITC) are in the process of investigating complaints alleging that China is violating global trading rules to give their domestic solar-and wind-energy industries an advantage on the world market.
The contention is that the Chinese government -- recognizing the growing global demand for renewable energy products -- has been giving its solar and wind energy producers enough money to price Chinese solar panels and wind turbines less than the rest of the world's solar panels and wind turbines. Their goal is to get the world's customers to stop buying the rest of the world's products and start buying from the Chinese.
The Chinese Government has made no secret of its desire to become the world's leading producer of environmental goods and has even issued a series of economic plans laying out its strategy to "speed up the development and deployment of hydropower, wind power, solar energy and biomass energy," directing local authorities to "allocate the necessary funds to support renewable energy development."
By all accounts, the Chinese Government's strategy is working. Today, my office is issuing a report showing that in just the last five years, China rose from playing a minor role in the global market for environmental goods to become the dominant actor in the world's biggest and fastest growing markets. Among other things, the report lays to rest arguments that the U.S. solar industry isn't losing out to China, showing that in just 2011, the U.S. went from a $2 billion trade surplus in solar energy products to a $1.5 billion deficit.
Of course, some will undoubtedly say: "So what?" They'll argue that the Chinese Government can do what it wants, that we shouldn't start a trade war with China and that cheap solar panels are a good thing. And others will say this is just another example of why free trade isn't good for Americans.
Let me respond:
1. So what if China is helping its domestic industries charge less for solar panels and other environmental goods? Can't the U.S. do the same?
If China is helping its domestic industries charge an artificially low price for solar panels and other environmental goods, then China is violating international trade rules that it agreed to when it became a member of the World Trade Organization. The global rules based trading system -- established after World War II and the Great Depression -- was designed to prevent trade wars by creating clear, enforceable standards for all of the world's participants. Its rules ensure that competition is based, not on the amount of assistance a government provides its industries, but on each industry's ability to innovate quality products and produce them efficiently.
If China -- the world's second largest economy -- is violating trade rules to help its industries undercut the price of solar panels and other environmental goods, it changes the competition from a race to produce better products more efficiently to a competition to cheat better. Meanwhile, the global trading system breaks down and countries that play by the rules -- like the U.S -- suffer.
2. But wouldn't enforcing trade laws with China start a trade war?
Trade wars aren't started by countries appealing to respected, independent trade authorities. Rather, trade wars begin when one country decides to violate international trade rules to undercut another country's industries. In trade -- as in football or any other rules-based competition -- we hold the rule breaker accountable, not the coach who asks the referee for a review.
If the U.S. Department of Commerce finds that China isn't breaking the rules, then no action will be taken. But if China is breaking trade rules to give its industries an unfair advantage, it's important that trade rules be enforced and tariffs be applied to negate that unfair advantage. Again, doing otherwise would undermine the integrity of the rules-based trading system.
3. But won't fewer people install solar panels if we raise the cost of Chinese solar panels?
This is a short-sighted argument. Yes, while U.S. manufacturers of solar panels are closing plants and laying off workers, U.S. solar panel installers are doing well by using the low-cost Chinese solar panels. However, if China successfully puts the rest of the world's solar manufacturers out of business, the Chinese government will stop subsidizing the price of solar panels and prices will go up.
Moreover, if China successfully puts the rest of the world's solar industries out of business, the race to innovate better, more efficient and more affordable renewable energy technologies comes to a halt.
4. Isn't this just another example of why trade is bad for Americans?
No. This is an example of why unfair trade is bad for Americans. President Obama said it best during his state of the Union Address this year when he declared: "I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules."
More than 90 percent of the world's customers live outside the United States. Ensuring that U.S. companies have a level playing field to compete for those customers is probably the single best way to grow U.S. businesses and create more good-paying U.S. jobs. But free trade does not mean trade free from rules, and failing to enforce trade rules not only fails to ensure that level playing field, it leaves U.S. industries at the mercy of countries that break the rules.
President Obama was right to make enforcement of those trade rules a priority and his creation, today, of a Trade Enforcement Unit is a massive step in the right direction. But as my office's report shows, we need to act quickly because it doesn't take long to lose to China.
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