HONG KONG — A broad trade case filed Thursday by an American labor union, accusing China of unfairly subsidizing its clean energy industry, pressed a hot-button jobs issue in the United States during a congressional election season.
But even if the Obama administration agrees to pursue the case, it could prove hard to resolve, as both countries consider their industries crucial to energy security and future economic growth.
The filing, by the 850,000-member United Steelworkers union, accuses China of violating the World Trade Organization’s free-trade rules by subsidizing exports of clean energy equipment like solar panels and wind turbines. Through its policies, fair or otherwise, China has helped turn its makers of that equipment into global leaders, while manufacturers in the United States and Europe have struggled financially, cut jobs and in some cases moved operations to China.
President Barack Obama has cited clean energy manufacture as a priority on economic and environmental grounds, and in a speech this week, he called for “a homegrown clean energy industry.”
Obama has shown a willingness to confront China before, imposing steep tariffs a year ago on Chinese tire imports — a decision that China is itself challenging before a WTO panel in Geneva, which is expected to give an initial ruling this month.
Whether or not the administration wants to risk escalating trade tensions with China right now, the timing of the union’s petition has thrust the issue into the congressional election season. The union filed under a law that requires the Obama administration to make a decision about whether to pursue the case within 45 days, which would be Oct. 24 — a week and a half before the elections.
“Once we file the case, we’re going to take it to the rest of the public,” Leo W. Gerard, president of the union, said before formally submitting the case. “We’re going to mobilize around this.”
If the administration does take up the case, the first step would be to ask China for bilateral consultations, which in a few months might lead to the formation of a WTO dispute resolution panel in Geneva, unless either side backed down first.
A succession of mostly Democratic members of the House and Senate issued statements through the day on Thursday, endorsing the steelworkers’ case. That support, together with public anxiety about unemployment and the rise of China, could make it hard for the administration to refuse the union’s request.