The trend with major Chinese industries seems to be this: The Chinese completely dominate the industry in a foreign country with their cheaper products; the country’s native producers cry foul that the Chinese government is subsidizing its companies and petition for the government to restrict imports from China. It happened with solar panels in the United States and the EU-- now the same thing is happening with China’s steel.
A number of major construction projects, including the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge across New York’s harbor, the longest towering suspension bridge in the U.S., are being repaired with Chinese steel. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge recently made use of steel from China as well, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Driven by these large-scale projects, Chinese steel imports have surged so far this year, even as American producers are left with their excess products.
In the first quarter of 2013, Chinese steel companies shipped 480,095 tons of steel to the U.S., up 33 percent from a year earlier. By contrast, total U.S. steel imports for the same period fell by 17 percent to 10.6 million tons.
U.S. steel mills in turn have become increasingly inactive. As of June 15, their production has fallen to just 76.7 percent of their capacity, down from 78.8 percent a year earlier. In 2012, American firms only produced 5.7 percent of the world’s total steel output, at 88.6 million tons.
Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority awarded a $235.7 million contract to repair the Verrazano-Narrows to a contractor in California, who in turn subcontracted the fabrication of steel decks for the bridge to China Railway Shanhaiguan Bridge Group. The group is using 15,000 tons of steel plates made by a Chinese steel producer, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The MTA said it tried to find a contractor who plans to use American steel, but there was only one such bidder, with a bid twice as high as the contractor that won.
Surprisingly, price is not the only consideration. Chinese companies have become specialists in making parts for bridges across the U.S., MTA officials said.
Bill McEleney of the National Steel Bridge Alliance, whose members make bridges and bridge parts, said many U.S. companies can build bridges, but not many are experienced with the flat-deck design being used these days to build or renovate heavily trafficked bridges.
"The Chinese are building many more of these kinds of bridges, so they have more fabricators," McEleney added.
Structal, a Chicago-based division of Canada’s Canam Group Inc., is the only U.S. company that makes the same decks that China Railway Shanhaiguan Bridge will manufacture for the Verrazano-Narrows project. The company uses only American steel and cannot compete on price with Chinese steel makers.
Chinese steel is so competitive on price that U.S. steel companies are arguing Chinese steel is unfairly subsidized to make it competitive, and want the American government to restrict its import.
A recent survey of American buyers of steel used in construction found that prices for Chinese-made steel are 25 percent lower.
The U.S. government currently collects duties on Chinese steel products, including steel bars, plats and pipes, all used in construction. Last week, the U.S. renewed tariffs on bars for five more years.
Earlier this month, the American Iron and Steel Institute, which represents U.S. steel makers, called on President Barack Obama to extend the tariffs on other steel products, according to the Wall Street Journal.