The US has launched an investigation into the possible threat to national security posed by imports of titanium sponge — a product that is widely used in the aerospace sector and mostly bought from Japan. 

The move was announced by the commerce department on Monday evening and could emerge as a new sore point between Washington and Tokyo as they prepare to enter formal negotiations on a possible trade deal. 

The probe into titanium sponge is the fifth of its kind launched by the Trump administration — which has invoked the power to block or limit trade flows into the US based on national security considerations much more frequently than its predecessors.

Last month, US investigators wrapped up a long-awaited report on the national security risks posed by automotive imports, which has not been publicly released but has triggered big concerns among European and Japanese policymakers and executives. 

“Titanium sponge has uses in a wide range of defence applications, from helicopter blades and tank armour to fighter jet airframes and engines,” Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, said in a statement. “The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security will conduct a thorough, fair, and transparent investigation before we make a recommendation to the president.” 

Toho Titanium and Osaka Titanium Technologies, the two main Japanese producers of titanium sponge, both declined to comment, saying it was too early to judge any impact. Stock in both companies fell 3 per cent in Tokyo trading.

US imports of titanium sponge were worth $208m in 2017, of which 86 per cent came from Japan, according to data reported by Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Affairs, in a tweet. However, he noted that this investigation was of a much smaller “economic magnitude” compared with the $350bn in auto imports, or even the national security probes of steel and aluminium imports, which paved the way for sweeping tariffs on metals produced by some of America’s closest allies last year. 

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The US said it had launched the national security probe after accepting a petition from Titanium Metals, an Ohio-based producer. As background, the commerce department noted that “only one facility in the United States has the capacity to process titanium ore into the sponge used in manufacturing”. It added that titanium sponge was hard to stockpile for long periods of time because it “degrades”.

Titanium Metals had previously asked the US government to impose anti-dumping and countervailing duties against titanium sponge imports from Japan and Kazakhstan, the other big foreign source of the metal. 

The probe into titanium sponge comes as Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, said he was keen to launch trade negotiations with Japan — which were set in motion after a meeting between Donald Trump, the US president, and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, last September. However, it is unclear how much progress the countries can make in any negotiations as long as the threat of possible auto sector tariffs remains.

Additional reporting by Robin Harding in Tokyo.



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