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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How China pulled so far ahead on industrial policy

Shipping containers at the port in Ningbo, China, March 27, 2024. The U.S. and Europe are trying to catch up to China’s lead in industrial policy, a rival skilled in using all the levers of government and banking to dominate global manufacturing. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

By Patricia Cohen, Keith Bradsher and Jim Tankersley

For more than half a century, concerns about oil shortages or a damaged climate have spurred governments to invest in alternative energy sources.

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter placed solar panels on the roof of the White House as a symbol of his commitment to developing energy from the sun. In the 1990s, Japan offered homeowners groundbreaking subsidies to install photovoltaic panels. And in the 2000s, Germany developed an innovative program that guaranteed consumers who adopted a solar energy system that they would sell their electricity at a profit.

But no country has come close to matching the scale and tenacity of China’s support. The proof is in the production: In 2022, Beijing accounted for 85% of all clean-energy manufacturing investment in the world, according to the International Energy Agency.

Now the United States, Europe and other wealthy nations are trying frantically to catch up. Hoping to correct past missteps on industrial policy and learn from China’s successes, they are spending huge amounts on subsidizing homegrown companies while also seeking to block competing Chinese products. They have made modest inroads: Last year, the energy agency said, China’s share of new clean-energy factory investment fell to 75%.

The problem for the West, though, is that China’s industrial dominance is underpinned by decades of experience using the power of a one-party state to pull all the levers of government and banking, while encouraging frenetic competition among private companies.

China’s unrivaled production of solar panels and electric vehicles is built on an earlier cultivation of the chemical, steel, battery and electronics industries, as well as large investments in rail lines, ports and highways.

From 2017-19, it spent an extraordinary 1.7% of its gross domestic product on industrial support, more than twice the percentage of any other country, according to an analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That spending included low-cost loans from state-controlled banks and cheap land from provincial governments, with little expectation that the companies they were aiding would turn immediate profits.

And it was accompanied by what the United States and other countries have charged was China’s willingness to skirt international trade agreements, engage in intellectual property theft and use forced labor.

It all combined to help put China in the position today to flood rival countries with low-cost electric cars, solar cells and lithium batteries, as consumers across the wealthy world are increasingly turning to green tech.

China now controls more than 80% of worldwide production of every step of solar panel manufacturing, for example.

“There’s enormous economies of scale by going big as China did,” said Gregory Nemet, a professor of public policy at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the global solar industry. When the investments resulted in overcapacity, suppressing the profitability of China’s companies, Beijing was willing to ride out the losses.

President Joe Biden and European leaders are determined to develop their countries’ manufacturing capacity in advanced technologies like semiconductors, electric vehicles and batteries, in part by adopting some of China’s tactics to nurture industries.

Biden and the heads of European governments, are more willing to call out Beijing for what they say are illegal practices like purposefully subsidizing excess production and then dumping underpriced goods on other countries.

Beijing denies that it has violated trade rules, contending that its enormous industrial capacity is a sign of success. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, said this month that China had increased the global supply of goods and alleviated international inflation pressures, while helping the world fight climate change.

Biden said this month that he would impose tariffs of up to 100% on imports of Chinese green technologies including electric vehicles. The aim is to deny China any more of an opening in America.

European officials are expected to impose their own tariffs soon — despite warnings from some economists and environmentalists that the measures will slow progress on meeting clean energy goals. Europe has become more worried about security issues as China has tilted its geopolitical stance toward Russia and Iran.

The West’s embrace of industrial policy is a departure from the ideology of open markets and minimal government intervention that the U.S. and its allies previously championed.

Policies prompted by the 1970s energy crises were largely reversed when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Even the solar panels installed at the White House during the Carter administration were removed.

Except for certain security-related industries, the U.S. adopted the view that an unfettered market always knows best.

“If the end result was that you had to rely on other countries for key parts, that was OK,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Joseph Stiglitz, an economist at Columbia University, said the U.S. had long lacked a broader industrial policy and a coordinated strategy.

“Even the Democrats were afraid to take a more aggressive government role,” he said, “and I think that was obviously a big mistake with long-run consequences.”

From the perspective of some Chinese economists, complaints about unfairness from the U.S. and Europe are a sign of their own governments’ failures.

“The West’s decision to pursue neoliberal economic policies was a strategic mistake, which led to the de-industrialisation of their economies and provided China with an opportunity,” said Zheng Yongnian, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Whatever mistakes were made, political leaders in the U.S. say they are determined not to repeat them.

Last year, the U.S. and European Union made “significant inroads” in clean energy technology, according to the International Energy Agency.

And the Biden administration’s multibillion-dollar program is one of the most extensive uses of industrial policy in American history.

Biden’s tariffs are a targeted escalation of an American trade offensive against China that began under former President Donald Trump. Trump imposed tariffs on imported goods from China valued at more than $350 billion a year, drawing retaliatory tariffs from Beijing. Biden has kept those tariffs, has added or increased them for clean energy and has raised new barriers to trade with Beijing, including denying China access to advanced semiconductors from the United States.

Biden’s trade agenda is “very, very aggressive,” said David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who has extensively documented the effects of trade with China on the U.S. economy, including factory job losses.

In his view, there are critical distinctions between Biden’s trade strategy and Beijing’s as both nations seek to lead the clean-energy race.

China was more focused on sending low-cost exports to global markets, Autor said, and preventing foreign firms from dominating China’s domestic markets.

Biden, he said, is more focused on keeping out imports from China and denying China access to some key U.S. technologies, like advanced semiconductors.

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