In 2018, the US President Donald Trump had imposed steep tariff barriers on steel imports to the tune of 25%. His move that partly emanated out of his ambition to ‘Make America Great Again’ and enhancing US national security was met with widespread criticism because it hurt not just China but also companies based in European countries, America’s closest allies. Nevertheless, Trump had persisted with his “national security” tariffs on Steel and even expanded them earlier this month. However, one important takeaway from the much-ridiculed move is that the US President Donald Trump treats Steel as a strategic good.
While Trump has been treating Steel as a strategic good, it is certainly not true for other parts of the world which have virtually given away a lion’s share to China when it comes to Steel production. China’s dominance in this sector is mindboggling as the country produces over 51.3% of the world’s Steel.
There is a tendency to treat Stainless Steel as a fringe sector, which has led to countries around the world let Beijing take control of its production. But the underrated metal is needed for almost everything from cutlery to aircrafts, tankers, and surgical instruments. In this sense, complete dependence on China seems like a strategic abyss.
Until only very recently, Steel and Stainless Steel would have seemed like unworthy products but as the Pandemic exposes how the world has yielded too much space to the Dragon. Such has been China’s dominance that American and European defence contractors have become overly dependent on China. Imagine everything from warships to aircrafts is dependent on Chinese Steel.
China’s rise in Steel production seems unreal- in 2005, the Asian giant produced only 12.9% of world’s stainless steel, while Europe produced 34.8% and the United States 9.2%. Equations have changed dramatically, as China now produces 52.6% of world’s stainless steel, while the shares of Europe and the United States have dropped to a dismal 15.6% and 5.5%.
Since the Steel sector was seen as unglamorous, Western countries made the strategic blunder of allowing China to silently hijack it. Thus, in 2004 only one Chinese company, Shanghai Baosteel made it to the top ten Steel producers. But in 2018, six of the world’s ten largest steel producers turned out to be Chinese companies.
The Chinese Steel industry itself is highly decentralised with hundreds of Steelmakers across the country, while the larger producers are mainly State-owned. This gives a measure of China’s domination- there are relatively fewer large, advanced Steelmakers in China. These large Steelmakers capture less than 50% of China’s Steel production share, yet manage to become some of the biggest producers across the world.
In 2018, China produced 930 million metric tons of crude Steel and China Baowu Group produced just 67.43 million metric tons of Steel- a small share in China’s production. But it still became the second biggest steel manufacturer in the world.
The HBIS Group produced still lesser Steel at 46.80 million metric tons, yet it managed to occupy the fourth spot in worldwide rankings. Clearly, there is a huge chasm between the production capacity of China and other countries.
930 million metric tons is what China produced within China, and its actual capacity might be even higher if we consider what China is producing beyond its own borders.
For example, there is a Stainless-Steel plant in Indonesia that can produce as much as 3 million metric tons of the strategic metal every year. But there is a twist in this story- the plant is not Indonesian, rather it is owned by a Chinese Steel major.
And Indonesia is not the only such country where China is producing Steel, and it is aiming distant parts of the world for augmenting Steel production. China’s Hebei Iron and Steel (HBIS) group has an ambitious plan to set up a steel plant in South Africa, which would be Beijing’s largest overseas Steel mill.
Last year, it was reported that a newly formed Chinese firm wanted to set up a Steel mill in Brazil with a humungous 8 million metric tons of production capacity as a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In fact, China has been investing in Brazil’s Steel industry heavily with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) planning to set up a Steel mill in the Latin American country with a production capacity of 3 million metric tons.
Chinese companies, including even those who are not amongst the top Steel manufacturers in the world are expanding their footprint beyond China, which means that the world is becoming more and more dependent on the Dragon for this strategic good.
In the COVID-19 context, there is an enhanced understanding of the need to cut down dependence on China, and this should extend to the strategic Steel sector. Countries will have to reshape the Steel share produce in order to avert the threat posed by Beijing’s dominance. The world has already ceded too much space to the irresponsible giant.
India has a viable Steel market with 111.2 million metric tons of Steel production in 2019, that is, a 5.9% share in the global production. But it needs to empower its own Steel players now, particularly the giants like ArcelorMittal- the Luxembourg based group that was taken over by Indian-owned Mittal Steel in 2006.
The Steel major produced 96.42 million metric tons in 2018, making it the biggest steelmaker in the world.
Moreover, South Korean Steel majors- Hyundai Steel Company and POSCO are also interested in shifting production to India. This is an opportunity that India must seize. Japan happens to be another player in Steel sector with 5.3% share in global output. Last year, Union Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan had invited Japan Steel companies to invest in India- a proposal that both New Delhi and Tokyo must consider much more seriously now.
It is clear that there has to be a shift in the global Steel production scenario in a post-Coronavirus world, and interested stakeholders like India, Japan and South Korea must come together to augment their production capacities.