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WTO ruling revives debate over China's rare earths trade

Amar Toor, @amartoo

China suffered another setback at the WTO yesterday, thanks to a ruling that could spell trouble for its controversial rare earths industry. In a decision issued Monday, a WTO panel determined that the Chinese government has been acting in violation of international trade rules, due to export restrictions on a number of raw materials. These restrictions, the panel said, allowed Beijing to inflate global market prices, while giving an advantage to domestic producers. As a result, China will likely have to adjust its trade policies to comply with WTO regulations. In a statement, the country's Ministry of Commerce said it "deeply regrets" the decision, but confirmed that the People's Republic will adhere to it. This week's ruling applies to materials like bauxite, coke, magnesium, manganese and zinc, but, most notably, does not apply to rare earths -- a group of 17 elements critical to the production of tablets, smartphones and myriad other gadgets.

China has maintained a rather tight grip over the world's rare earths market, thanks to a slew of export controls, quotas and government-erected barriers to entry. The country has come under intense international pressure in recent years, with the US, EU and Mexico filing complaints with the WTO, arguing that China's price-inflating restrictions violate international trade agreements. Beijing, for its part, has long maintained that its export controls are designed to minimize the environmental impact of rare earth mining, while meeting the country's surging domestic demand. It's an argument that's come up a lot during this debate but one that the WTO, on Monday, deemed illegitimate, stating that China has thus far been "unable to demonstrate" the environmental benefits of its policies. The decision won't have any immediate bearing on these policies, but some observers are hopeful that it may be a sign of things to come. Michael Silver, CEO of rare earth processor American Elements, told Reuters that the ruling "confirms the existence of the two-tiered price structure that has caused so much concern," with EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht adding that the decision should force China to remove restrictions on both the aforementioned raw materials and rare earths, alike. Others, however, aren't so optimistic, pointing out that, with a full 95 percent of the rare earths market under its aegis, China could realistically afford to ignore any decisions handed down from the WTO in the future.

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