One thing that economists often argue for is free trade. It promotes competition, allows greater choice and generates efficiency gains through specialisation to name a few of the advantages. Barriers to trade have gradually been brought down across the global economy, but some do still exist.
Although free trade does have many advantages, there are also arguments for barriers to trade, especially for developing or emerging economies. In some cases, barriers to trade can help a country to develop a particular industry or offer protection to a new sector from the giants of the world. In the case of China, it had a quota system in place since 2009 to restrict exports of ‘rare earth materials’, such as Tungsten and Molybdenum. Many of the hi-tech products that China specialises in require these rare minerals during production and, as the dominant producer of these minerals, Beijing had imposed restrictions on exporting them in an attempt to develop these industries.
However, other countries had raised concerns about the quota system being used, suggesting that by restricting exports of rare earth minerals, China was driving up their price. It was also suggested that the restrictions benefited domestic producers, at the expense of foreign competitors, given that domestic producers were able to access the raw materials at cheaper prices.
A complaint was made to the World Trade Organization in March 2014 by the USA, supported by the EU, Canada and Japan. Following an investigation by a WTO panel, the panel found that China had failed to show sufficiently that the quotas were justified. After an appeal by China, the panel’s findings were upheld in August by the WTO.
In response to the failure of its appeal, China has just announced that it is removing the quotas on exports of rare earth materials. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story, as other policies may well be imposed, including a resources tax; and an export licence is still required. The following articles consider this battle.
China axes rare earth export quotas Financial Times, Lucy Hornby (5/1/15)
China scraps quotas on rare earths after WTO complaint BBC News (5/1/15)
China ends rare-earth minerals export quotas Wall Street Journal, Chuin-Wei Yap (5/1/15)
China scraps rare earth export controls after losing WTO appeal Bloomberg (6/1/15)
China abolishes rare earth export quotas: state media Reuters (4/1/15)
- What are the benefits of free trade?
- Why do some countries choose to impose protectionist measures and what type of measures can be put in place?
- Using a diagram, explain the impact that export quotas would have on Chinese firms using these rare minerals and also on foreign firms.
- Why have other countries argued that export quotas push up prices of these minerals?
- What other policies might China put in place in order to protect its industries?