In the first such case to be filed jointly by the US, European Union and Japan, China is accused of restricting its exports of rare earths, 17 metals essential to making everything from mobile phones to missiles.
China, the world’s biggest consumer of commodities, is here in a rather convenient position. It is the number one producer of rare earths, accounting for more than 95pc of the global market.
While the metals are not actually rare – China has just 30pc of the known deposits – it takes time for other projects to be developed and mined. In the meantime, Beijing’s critics say that its export quotas, in addition to duties and minimum price requirements, amount to trade restrictions.
China’s aim, so this argument goes, is to create an artificial surplus of the materials at home, which keeps the cost of them low. That, in turn, helps Chinese manufacturers. The complaints are coming right from the top. “We want our companies building those products right here in America,” said Barak Obama, the US president, earlier this year. “But to do that, American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials which China supplies.”
Beijing contends the export curbs are necessary to control environmental problems caused by rare earth mining and to preserve supplies of an exhaustible natural resource.