The United States on Thursday announced the imposition of antidumping tariffs of more than 31 percent on solar panels from China.
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The move, announced by the Commerce Department, is certain to infuriate Chinese officials already upset after recent bilateral frictions over China’s human rights policies and its increasingly confrontational approach toward American allies like the Philippines and Japan.
The antidumping decision is one of the largest in American history, covering one of the largest and fastest-growing categories of imports from China, the world’s largest exporter.
The department said the United States bought $3.1 billion worth of Chinese solar cells last year, giving China more than half the American market for the devices.
Many solar panel installers in the United States have opposed tariffs on Chinese panels, contending that inexpensive imports have helped spur many homeowners and businesses to put solar panels on their rooftops. The new tariffs are likely to mean a substantial increase in the price of solar panels here.
Chinese officials have been indignant at American criticism of their solar power industry, pointing out that the United States has urged China for years to embrace renewable energy as a way to reduce air pollution, combat climate change and limit the need for oil imports from politically volatile countries in the Mideast.
Government support for solar energy is an important feature of China’s current Five-Year Plan, which runs through 2015, although Premier Wen Jiabao publicly cautioned in March that he was becoming concerned about overcapacity in the sector.
Li Junfeng, an energy policy maker and regulator in the Chinese government who is also the president of the government-controlled Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, responded angrily to the American decision.
“This is really a surprise,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s really dangerous.”
Mr. Li said that Chinese companies would “certainly” retaliate by filing a trade case at China’s commerce ministry accusing big American chemical companies of dumping polysilicon, the main ingredient in solar panels, on the Chinese market.
The American decision was made by civil servants in a quasi-judicial process that is heavily insulated by law from political interference and does not represent a deliberate attempt by the Obama administration to confront China on trade policy. But that distinction has been largely lost in China, where the solar panel issue has been one of many causes embraced online by the country’s vociferous ultranationalists, who put heavy pressure on Chinese officials to respond forcefully to perceived snubs to China.
Further complicating matters is a similar case against China and Vietnam over the manufacture of steel towers for wind turbines, charging that steep government subsidies were giving foreign companies an unfair advantage over American manufacturers. A preliminary ruling is due on May 30 in that case.
The solar tariffs, which are retroactive to 90 days before the decision is officially published in the next several days, are in addition to antisubsidy tariffs of 2.9 to 4.73 percent that the department imposed in March.
SolarWorld Industries America, which led the coalition of manufacturers that filed the solar dumping case, welcomed the department’s ruling. The decision “is a very positive step in the process. It’s also in line with what we expected,” said Ben Santarris, a company spokesman. “We consider this a bellwether case. It underscores the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy.”
Alan Price, a partner who heads the international trade practice at Wiley Rein, the law firm representing the United States companies in both the solar and wind cases, said that China posed a particular threat to America’s developing green energy sector.
“China’s method is straightforward: it sets forth industry-specific Five-Year Plans and then uses all forms of national and local subsidies and other governmental support to quickly transfer jobs, supply chains, intellectual property and wealth, to the permanent detriment of U.S. and global manufacturers,” he said. “China’s ability to ramp up and overwhelm an industry is unique and particularly devastating with new and emerging technologies, where global competitors may be less established and can be knocked out more easily and quickly.”
Several large Chinese manufacturers expressed disappointment with the decision and said they would try to convince the Commerce Department that it was unjustified.
According to a report from the Solar Foundation, an advocacy group, the solar industry employed about 100,000 workers last year, up almost 7 percent from the year before. More than half of the jobs were in installation, with about a quarter in manufacturing.
Isabelle Christensen, the marketing director of JinkoSolar, another Chinese manufacturer, said that her company had already established a factory in Canada and could probably shift production there if necessary.
“We can begin ramping up our manufacturing facility in Canada fairly quickly,” she said, matching what the company produces in China for the American market in a matter of months.
But while Chinese solar panel manufacturers may threaten to set up production elsewhere, they may face another obstacle: their bankers. State-owned banks have already lent heavily to the Chinese manufacturers under pressure from the government, producing a capacity glut in China that has prompted factories to slash prices as they fight to maintain market share.
A senior Chinese banker, who insisted on anonymity to avoid political repercussions, said that Chinese banks were not eager to lend heavily for another round of solar panel factory investments on the large scale needed to supply the American market.
In the United States, solar panel trade cases have divided the industry in much the same way that automotive trade disputes in the 1980s split the American auto industry, when Detroit automakers seeking import restrictions were opposed by American car dealers who were making large profits from selling and servicing cars imported from Japan.
Opponents of the tariffs say that the United States benefits from cheap Chinese production. They point out that Chinese companies often turn to American companies to buy the factory equipment and polysilicon they need to make solar panels, and installers hire local American workers to set up and service rooftop systems.
Like the antisubsidy tariffs, the antidumping decision on Thursday is preliminary. But if solar panel importers win a final review of both tariff decisions by the Commerce Department later this year, the preliminary tariffs could be reduced or even entirely refunded, although they also might be increased.
The Commerce Department calculated the 31 percent tariff by estimating Chinese manufacturers’ costs and then determining how far below cost the solar panels were being sold in the United States. But the department’s methods for calculating costs are controversial for countries that it designates as nonmarket economies, where the government plays such a large role in allocating land, credit and other resources that the true costs of any given product may not be apparent.
In Thursday’s decision, the Commerce Department sided with SolarWorld in using solar manufacturing costs in Thailand as a proxy for costs in China. The Chinese industry had wanted to use India as a proxy instead.