Sorting out fact and hype in China’s energy tech ambitions

Does it matter that China is pushing the limits on clean-energy development and minerals acquisition while in a race with the United States for global economic primacy? Or is the United States just as robust a competitor, buttressed by its own billions in federal and venture-capital funding, along with first-rate laboratory science? America is so ...

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Does it matter that China is pushing the limits on clean-energy development and minerals acquisition while in a race with the United States for global economic primacy? Or is the United States just as robust a competitor, buttressed by its own billions in federal and venture-capital funding, along with first-rate laboratory science? America is so poisonously partisan these days that a question that should by all rights be non-ideological has been sucked into the right and left echo chambers. But I'm interested in hearing dispassionate voices on the matter.

Over the last few days, there has been much news regarding China's steep local and state subsidies for wind, solar and other clean-energy technologies, along with its restrictions on the export of rare earth metals used in their manufacture. The New York Times' Keith Bradsher wrote a long, penetrating piece on the subject. And the United Steelworkers union, helmed by Leo Gerard -- probably the United States' most aggressive non-governmental advocate for U.S. manufacturing exporters --  has filed a 5,800-page complaint with the Obama administration, asking for an official World Trade Organization investigation into what it calls illegal subsidies. Since then, Washington politicians have piled on Beijing, not surprising since China's economy is roaring while the United States' is not.

Does it matter that China is pushing the limits on clean-energy development and minerals acquisition while in a race with the United States for global economic primacy? Or is the United States just as robust a competitor, buttressed by its own billions in federal and venture-capital funding, along with first-rate laboratory science? America is so poisonously partisan these days that a question that should by all rights be non-ideological has been sucked into the right and left echo chambers. But I’m interested in hearing dispassionate voices on the matter.

Over the last few days, there has been much news regarding China’s steep local and state subsidies for wind, solar and other clean-energy technologies, along with its restrictions on the export of rare earth metals used in their manufacture. The New York TimesKeith Bradsher wrote a long, penetrating piece on the subject. And the United Steelworkers union, helmed by Leo Gerard — probably the United States’ most aggressive non-governmental advocate for U.S. manufacturing exporters —  has filed a 5,800-page complaint with the Obama administration, asking for an official World Trade Organization investigation into what it calls illegal subsidies. Since then, Washington politicians have piled on Beijing, not surprising since China’s economy is roaring while the United States’ is not.

Now, the Times‘ Bill Broad contributes a weekend piece about a manned Chinese submersible diving two miles below the South China Sea. The journey, Broad writes, signals “Beijing’s intention to take the lead in exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine.” Broad suggests that this is the first salvo in a new chapter of the global resource race.

Over at Seeking Alpha, Doc Econ writes that the game is already over: China is the winner of the global clean energy sweepstakes. At Portfolio.com, Kent Bernhard Jr. suggests that, even if China is ahead, U.S. companies are complicit.

It’s true that the U.S. is allowing politics to get in the way of real new industries at a time the number of alternatives are few. As one example, Deutsche Bank, which had established an entire clean energy unit to cash in on climate change legislation in the U.S., said last month that it’s shifting its $6 billion-$7 billion to China and Europe.

On the other hand, one wonders if there is an element of alarmism at play here. In the case of the submersible, China sent three men down a couple of miles, and the submersible, named Jiaolong, is designed to go down as far as 7,000 meters, or 4.35 miles. But just last year, a Massachusetts team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute sent a robotic submarine called the Nereus to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — a plunge of 11,000 meters, or 6 miles.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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