U.S. Steel, the Pittsburgh steel producer that played a key role in the nation’s industrialization, is being acquired by Nippon Steel in an all-cash deal valued at approximately $14.1 billion.

U.S. Steel, the Pittsburgh steel producer that played a key role in the nation’s industrialization, is being acquired by Nippon Steel in an all-cash deal valued at approximately $14.1 billion. (Fort Frick Photography/United States Steel Corporation/Facebook)

The majority of U.S. presidential elections this century have been won by slim margins in a handful of states where there remains enough parity between Democrats and Republicans to potentially make things competitive.

This election year is no different.

Just as in 2016 and 2020, the so-called “Rust Belt” — a collection of midwestern and northeastern states that tip into the American south — are expected to make the difference. The region was once the nation’s industrial engine serving as a bastion for manufacturing, steelmaking and coal production.

With 36 delegates to the Electoral College, Pennsylvania (19) and Ohio (17) are crucial to any candidate’s path to the 270 needed to win. It should therefore be no surprise that the presumptive nominees of both parties, as well as a notable third-party challenger, are doing everything possible to earn voters’ trust in those states.

Regrettably for the country, however, a sensitive local issue involving the purchase of U.S. Steel, an iconic American company based in Pittsburgh, by a Japanese corporation has led to political pandering in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Steelworker union leaders there are attempting to thwart the sale by fueling anxieties regarding how Nippon Steel will address labor issues despite guarantees from Tokyo. In an effort to allay those concerns and demonstrate solidarity with steelworkers, Nippon Steel just announced it will be moving its U.S. headquarters from Houston to Pittsburgh.

Scuttling the deal would not only be a disservice to Americans; it would be a gift to the People’s Republic of China.

A joint effort between major U.S. and Japanese steel companies would distinguish the new structure as a top three global producer of steel and dilute Beijing’s market domination in the contemporary era. Nippon Steel is ranked #4 globally, while U.S. Steel has dropped over several decades from the top to #27 today. The steep decline is mostly due to Beijing’s unfair trade practices, coupled with Washington’s inability to attend to the problem.

While recent congressional efforts to ban China-owned TikTok have rightly generated significant attention, comparatively less scrutiny has been given to the fact that America’s principal strategic adversary has gone from an industrial backwater to boasting six of the top 10 global steel companies in our lifetime.

Seismic shifts in steel production are even more dangerous to the United States and our allies.

The fact of the matter is that social media platforms come and go. Anyone remember MySpace? But steel endures. As the war between Russia and Ukraine bears out, no social media enterprise, diplomatic lever, economic sanction, or other instrument of power short of nuclear deterrence can replace cold, hard steel on the battlefield.

Planes, ships, tanks, armored vehicles, drones, bombs, bullets, missiles, land mines, rifles, knives, body armor, helmets, fuel tanks and shipping containers all rely on steel, either as principal components or in the manufacturing process. Standing idly by as an expansionist China produces over half the steel used globally presents grave national security concerns for Western nations and our East Asian allies.

The U.S.-Japan security alliance is the most formidable bulwark to China’s moves on disputed islands and resource-rich waters with half-a-dozen countries nearby.

If the countries cannot come together on the joint production of steel — the essential ingredient in kinetic warfare — especially with the U.S. steel industry in decline, it begs the question: Why bother basing roughly 55,000 troops in Japan? Presidential candidates are shortsighted to neglect U.S. security interests in order to score Rust Belt votes.

Even worse than pandering for votes, big business interests in Ohio are also desperately trying to sink the U.S.-Japan deal, namely steel producer Cleveland-Cliffs.

This month the Wall Street Journal editorial board sharply criticized Cleveland-Cliffs’ CEO Lourenco Goncalves boasting about his close ties with the Biden administration in an aptly titled piece, “Steel-Making in the Swamp.” Such warm ties may be behind President Joe Biden’s apparent opposition to Nippon Steel’s purchase offer after months of quiet acquiescence.

For those that haven’t followed the saga of heavily indebted U.S. Steel over the past year, Cleveland-Cliffs attempted to buy it last August for $7.3 billion, less than half price of what Nippon Steel offered months later.

Rather than pander to the Rust Belt over the purchase of U.S. Steel, a far more productive use of presidential candidate time and energy could be directed toward fixing the underlying reasons the famed company is struggling in the first place. The main reason is China and its malign campaign to dump steel below market value around the world in an effort to crush its competition.

Many of the students that I teach in Baltimore — and some faculty colleagues, too — come from families that lifted themselves from poverty during the segregationist Jim Crow era by way of work in the steel and manufacturing sectors, only to experience the challenges of disinvestment and urban decay with the decline of these industries in the United States.

Bold measures that address trade issues and security concerns involving China are what Americans need in 2024, not the sinking of a key strategic ally’s bid to help rescue a celebrated yet struggling American company.

Are presidential candidates listening?

Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the associate dean of the College of Public Affairs and past executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own.

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