Chinese Solar Makers Evaded U.S. Tariffs, Investigation Finds

The Biden administration pre-emptively halted any penalties from the case in June, prompting critics to say the administration had shortcut its own trade rules

Rooftop solar panels.
Ana Swanson
Brad Plumer

By Ana Swanson and Brad Plumer, WSJ

Dec. 2, 2022

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials have determined that four of eight major Chinese solar companies under investigation in recent months tried to evade tariffs by funneling products into the United States through Southeast Asian countries, in a trade case that has pitted clean energy advocates against domestic solar panel manufacturers.

The decision applies to the Thailand operations of Canadian Solar and Trina Solar, as well as BYD Cambodia and Vina Solar Vietnam, according to documents published by the Department of Commerce Friday morning.

The ruling centered around esoteric trade laws that aim to protect American manufacturers from unfairly cheap foreign products. But more broadly, the case is related to an increasingly difficult question confronting U.S. policymakers: how quickly the United States can expect to wean itself off China’s supply of materials that are crucial for the American economy, including the solar panels that are needed for a transition to green energy.

The investigation, initiated at the request of a small California-based company named Auxin Solar, centered on whether Chinese companies have been trying to bypass tariffs that the United States imposed on cheap solar panels imported from China. In recent years, Chinese solar companies have significantly expanded their manufacturing presence in Southeast Asian countries that do not face the same tariffs.

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The trade case rests on whether the Chinese companies are actually using these Southeast Asian countries as a significant site of manufacturing, or if they are just making minor changes to products that are largely made in China to try to get around U.S. trade rules.

Other companies that were also under investigation — namely New East Solar Cambodia, Hanwha Q CELLS Malaysia, Jinko Solar Malaysia and the Vietnam operations of Boviet Solar — were found not to be violating U.S. trade rules.

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Typically, companies that are found to be circumventing U.S. tariffs would immediately be subject to higher duty rates to bring their products into the United States. But in an unusual measure, the Biden administration in June pre-empted those higher duties by announcing a two-year pause on any tariff increases on solar products.

The administration said its decision to halt additional tariffs would help ensure that the United States has enough solar panels as it tries to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in the months to come. The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal of generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from carbon-free energy sources by 2035, a goal that may require more than doubling the annual pace of solar installations.

But domestic manufacturing groups have criticized the president’s decision to halt any imposition of tariffs, saying he is failing to enforce America’s trade rules and crack down on unfair Chinese practices.

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Solar importers, too, have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that the two-year pause is not enough time to establish sufficient manufacturing capacity outside China to meet rising U.S. demand.

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Enormous planned investments in solar energy have raised the stakes of the debate. The Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping new climate law signed by President Biden in August, provides roughly $37 billion in incentives for companies to produce solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other crucial minerals in the United States, aiming to reverse the longstanding migration of clean energy manufacturing to China and elsewhere.

The clash is the latest chapter in a decade-long conflict between the United States and China over the solar industry. In 2012, the United States began imposing duties on Chinese solar panels, arguing that Chinese manufacturers were unfairly selling their products in the United States at prices below the cost of production. Chinese solar manufacturers shifted their operations to Taiwan instead, but the United States soon expanded its tariffs to apply to Taiwan, as well.

In recent years, Chinese companies have set up new manufacturing operations in Southeast Asia, and exports of solar products to the United States from Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia have exploded. In many cases, these factories appear to rely on raw materials sourced largely from China, like polysilicon.

That business model has proved problematic in more ways than one. The U.S. government has found that major Chinese producers of polysilicon and solar products are guilty of using forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China and has banned any products using that polysilicon from the United States.

Auxin Solar and other domestic manufacturers have also said that the boom in business in Southeast Asia was an attempt by Chinese companies to evade the duties that the United States had imposed on Chinese products.

In a preliminary decision on the case on Friday, officials at the Commerce Department agreed, at least for some cases. The Commerce Department will now require solar companies exporting to the United States from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia to certify that a significant proportion of their materials are coming from outside China. Otherwise, companies in those countries will be subject to the same duties paid by their Chinese suppliers starting in 2024. The Commerce Department will continue to review the case and issue its final decision on the matter on May 1, 2023.

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