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CRU: What the Ban on Materials ex Xinjiang China Means for Aluminum

Written by Greg Wittbecker

By Greg Wittbecker, Advisor, CRU Group

Legislation passed Dec. 16 by the Senate and now on its way to the White House will all but ban imports connected at any point in the supply chain to materials from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. However well justified by human rights, this ban will be a challenge for people to comply with by law.

Let’s put this into context from an aluminum perspective. Xinjiang replaced Henan province as China’s second largest primary aluminum production area in 2014, trailing only Shandong province.


Xinjiang was producing 4.2 million tons or 15% of total Chinese production. Its growth was driven by proximity to very cheap and vast soft coal deposits, which were converted into stranded energy for smelting. The government had encouraged rapid industrialization in Xinjiang to build economic prosperity for the region and serve as a deterrent to political unrest. Xinjiang is closer to political hot spots in central Asia than Beijing, with a predominantly Muslim culture. (Signage in the region is in Arabic as well as in Mandarin.) Beijing has always been concerned about radicalism in the region and turned to aluminum production in hopes of using economic well-being to win over the Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group that calls Xinjiang home.

Fast forward to 2021, Xinjiang is producing 6 million tons of primary aluminum, or about the same ~15% of total Chinese output. Its production has flatlined since 2015. Emphasis has shifted away from Xinjiang as the growth center. Now, Yunnan province is the “in place” due to its attractive hydro-electric power and ability to help China decarbonize its aluminum sector.

Xinjiang’s aluminum is largely shipped to Eastern China in cast ingot form because the local downstream markets are relatively small. This metal ends up in Henan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces where it feeds large rolling sectors – which thrive thanks to exports. This is where traceability becomes problematic.

Chinese rolling mills are unlikely to use exclusively Xinjiang-origin metal in their production. Xinjiang metal is indistinguishable from primary aluminum produced elsewhere in China. The only means to really trace it would be by virtue of physical separation as cold cast ingot form as opposed to molten metal that might be coming from other adjacent smelters.

However, once remelted and cast into sheet ingot or used in continuous casters, the Xinjiang metal will be comingled and the traceability will be lost.

China continues to export aluminum can body stock to the U.S. and Mexico under exemptions from Section 232 and Section 301. Nanshan is a major player, and their metal is processed in many U.S. can maker facilities. China also has a dominant share in the Mexican can making market, whose cans may end up in the U.S. for filling.

This will be where it gets sticky. If one of the big exporting can sheet mills such as Nanshan, Weiqiao or Zhongfu are using Xinjiang metal in their process, it will be impossible for them to certify they are NOT using Xinjiang-origin metal.

Their only recourse would be to segregate their cold metal receipts from Xinjiang in their casthouses to produce sheet ingot or molten metal that would be dedicated for domestic production. That may or may not be possible depending upon the setup of the casthouse to the hot mill or continuous casters.

If their production flow paths don’t allow for this, the worst-case scenario would be for the export mills to stop accepting Xinjiang metal. That would force that metal into alternative domestic consumptive channels. Would it lead to Xinjiang aluminum production being cut? Highly likely. Inconvenient, yes, but not dealing a punitive economic blow.

This U.S. ban may have more far-reaching implications on other sectors, such as Xinjiang cotton, which presents about 20% of global production. However, it is not going to have a meaningful impact on aluminum.

Best wishes from the CRU Aluminum and Base Metals Analysis teams for a Happy New Year. 

Greg Wittbecker joined CRU in January 2018 after retiring from Alcoa, where he was Vice President of Industry Analysis and Managing Director of Alcoa Beijing Trading, based in Shanghai, China. His career spans 35 years in the aluminum industry, having also held senior commercial and management roles at Cargill, Wise Metals and Koch Supply and Trading. Greg brings perspective on the entire aluminum supply chain from bauxite to aluminum finished products and will be a regular contributor to SMU going forward. He can be reached at

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