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Yellen Warning to China on Oversupply Seen Falling on Deaf Ears

US Treasury Secretary is seen as an ‘effective’ trade emissary, but Beijing is not expected to put the brakes on its ‘new productive forces’ – EVs, batteries and solar – because of Western angst

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is back in China and expected to meet again with US businesses in Beijing, as well as the country's top financial leaders (Reuters).


US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has a tricky task to perform on her latest visit to China, which began in Guangzhou, the south factory hub, on Thursday.

Yellen has a simple message for Chinese officials on oversupply of key manufactured goods, one they may prefer to ignore: ‘You’re producing too much of everything, especially clean-energy goods, and the world can’t absorb it.’

This follows a flood of electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels, computer chips and other factory-made goods onto global markets, generated by years of massive government subsidies and weak demand at home. Global prices for many goods are tanking, pressuring producers in other countries.


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In a series of meetings with top Chinese economic officials from Friday through till Monday, Yellen will seek to convey her view that the excess production is unhealthy for China and that there is a growing drumbeat of concern about it in the US, Europe, Japan, Mexico and other major economies.

“We see a growing threat of money losing firms that are going to have to sell off their production somewhere,” a senior US Treasury official said of overproduction in key Chinese sectors.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Yellen would explain: “If there are trade actions around the world, it’s not an anti-China thing, it’s a response to their policies.”

But Beijing appears to be doubling down on investing in more manufacturing capacity in favoured high-technology sectors, a stance that also is increasingly at odds with the European Union, Japan, Mexico and other major economies.

Yellen is seen as an “effective emissary” to manage trade tensions, according to a report by the South China Morning Post, which noted that as a ‘dovish’ member of the Biden administration she is expected to help maintain stable ties with Beijing.

Other issues likely to be discussed during the visit include financial stability, climate change and debt relief for developing nations, cooperation in fighting illicit finance.


A prelude to US tariffs?

President Xi, in his phone call with Biden on Tuesday, urged mutually beneficial cooperation, according to Xinhua news agency, but warned that “if the US insists on suppressing China’s hi-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, we will not sit idly by.”

“I do think the stage is set for renewed tensions with China,” said Brad Setser, a former trade official at both the US Treasury and the US Trade Representative’s office. “It’s an intrinsic question whether other countries want to import China’s distortions.”

Setser added that Yellen’s warnings about Chinese overproduction may be an initial step by the Biden administration towards new tariffs or other trade barriers on Chinese EVs, batteries and other goods.

En route to Guangzhou, Yellen declined to say whether she would raise the threat of new tariffs in her meetings in Guangzhou and Beijing with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng and Guangdong Province Governor Wang Weizhong, who has also presided over hundreds of billions of dollars worth of recent new projects.

But she said that the Biden administration was determined to develop American supply chains in EVs, solar power and other clean energy goods with investment tax credits and would not “rule out other possible ways in which we would protect them.”

In March, China’s leadership pledged to follow through on President Xi Jinping’s new mantra of unleashing “new productive forces” in China by investing in developing technology industries including EVs, new materials, commercial spaceflight and life sciences – areas where many US firms hold advantages.


Huge excess auto production capacity

The results of China’s prior investment binges are staggering.

China by the end of 2022 had the capacity to produce 43 million vehicles annually, both EVs and combustion-engine cars, but its plant utilisation rate – a measure closely linked to profitability – was just under 55%, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association.

Bill Russo, the Shanghai-based founder and CEO of advisory firm Automobility, estimated that this translates to excess auto production capacity of about 10 million vehicles a year, or roughly two-thirds of North American auto output in 2022.

The Rystad Energy research group estimates that China will soon be able to meet all global demand for lithium-ion vehicle batteries, even as dozens of battery and component plants spring up across the US.

And new entrants are still coming into an increasingly cut-throat Chinese EV market. Mobile-phone maker Xiaomi on Tuesday launched sales of its sporty new Speed Ultra 7 (SU7) EV.


Massive solar overproduction

The situation in China’s solar panel sector may be worse, where overproduction pushed prices down 42% last year to levels 60% below the cost of comparable US-made products.

China now accounts for 80% of global production capacity, and major solar producers are continuing to build factories, backed by provincial and local subsidies.

At the end of 2023, China had the capacity to build 861 gigawatts of solar modules per year, more than double the global total installed capacity of 390 million gigawatts.

Another 500-600 gigawatts of annual capacity is forecast to come online this year – enough to supply all global demand through 2032, according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie.

Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief Asia-Pacific economist for Natixis, expressed doubt on Yellen achieving results on overcapacity, explaining that electric vehicles, lithium batteries and solar panels are clear “engines of growth” with exports exceeding 1 trillion yuan ($138 billion).

“I think they’re going to hit the wall on this one,” she was quoted as saying.


  • Reuters with additional input and editing by Jim Pollard


NOTE: The subhead on this report was amended on April 4, 2024.



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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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