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US launches national security probe into aluminium imports
[WASHINGTON] The US Commerce Department launched an investigation on Wednesday to determine whether a flood of aluminium imports from China and elsewhere was compromising US national security, a step that could lead to broad import restrictions on the metal.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the investigation was similar to one announced last week for steel imports into the United States, invoking Section 232 of a national security law passed in 1962 at the height of the Cold War.
Mr Ross told reporters the probe was prompted by the extreme competitive pressures that unfairly traded imports were putting on the US aluminium industry, causing several domestic smelters to close or halt production in recent years.
China, the world's top producer and consumer of the metal, is seriously concerned by the probe and hope to resolve the dispute through negotiations, a Commerce Ministry spokesman said at a regular briefing on Thursday.
The US move is the latest of several potential US actions aimed at stemming a rising tide of aluminium imports. The Commerce Department is investigating allegations that Chinese companies are dumping aluminium foil into the US market below cost and benefiting from unfair subsidies.
Mr Ross said part of the justification for the investigation was that US combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet require high-purity aluminium that is now produced by only one smelter, Century Aluminum Co.
He said that company could probably meet US peacetime needs, but not if the United States needed to ramp up defense production for a conflict. The same high-purity aluminium goes into armour plating for military vehicles and naval vessels, he said.
"At the very same time that our military is needing more and more of the very high-quality aluminium, we're producing less and less of everything, and only have the one producer of aerospace-quality aluminium," Mr Ross told a White House briefing.
The investigation will determine if there is sufficient domestic aluminium capacity to meet US defense needs and will also assess the effects of lost jobs, skills and investments on national security, Mr Ross said.
Although he said China was a major contributor to the global excess capacity in aluminium production, he said imports from other countries, including Russia, were also causing problems. "This is not a China-phobic program, this has to do with a global problem," Mr Ross said.
Last November, a dozen US senators urged a US national security review of Chinese aluminium Zhongwang International Group Ltd's proposed US$2.3 billion purchase of Cleveland-based aluminium products maker Aleris Corp.
The transaction is still pending, and a spokesman for Aleris could not be immediately reached for comment on the Commerce Department probe.