(Bloomberg) -- Along the industrial corridor that bends with the Ohio River north and west of Pittsburgh, the future looked bright for hundreds of new blue-collar jobs when Allegheny Technologies Inc. and China’s Tsingshan Holding Group Co. announced they had the governmental green light to produce stainless steel together.What the companies didn’t foresee: that President Donald Trump would invoke U.S. national security two years ago and roll out broad-based steel tariffs in what he portrayed as a bid to save American industry from unfair foreign competition. It turned their investment into what Pittsburgh-based Allegheny now says is a money-losing debacle.They also weren’t counting on the ugly feud that ensued among the U.S.’s largest stainless-steel producers, which continues to rage and has become an example of the consequences and limitations of Trump’s efforts to rein in China’s economic rise. As Trump stakes his deal-making credentials on a limited “phase one” accord with Beijing, the saga of Allegheny and its Pennsylvania joint venture with the world’s largest stainless-steel maker illustrates what was left out of that agreement and how rising Chinese corporate giants are continuing to baffle American industries struggling to figure out how to compete.Trump’s deal, which went into force Feb. 14, left for later the thorny issue of industrial subsidies that have helped Chinese companies gain control of global production in vital industries — the very strategy at the heart of the Allegheny dispute.Today, Allegheny, a major supplier of specialty metals to Boeing Co. and other aviation and defense companies, is asking the Trump administration for relief from the steel tariffs. Those import duties hit the raw stainless steel that the company brings from a plant that Tsingshan runs near a mine in Indonesia that it partly owns. The mine supplies a key ingredient — nickel.Rivals Outokumpu Oyj and North American Stainless argue not only that Allegheny’s request should be rejected, but want the Trump administration to take more extreme measures against Indonesian imports. Allegheny executives say that without a break, they’ll be forced to shut down the Midland factory and fire 100 workers, with consequences for several hundred more jobs linked to the plant. Allegheny is “trying to do the right thing bringing more jobs into the U.S., bring more competitiveness to the market and we kind of ran into a buzz saw,” Bob Wetherbee, the company’s president and chief executive, said in an interview. “We are the victim of predatory competitive actions driving a false narrative in opposition to our request.”Tsingshan, in an emailed statement, described the stakes bluntly: “The Midland plant will shut down without an exclusion. American jobs will be lost.”Allegheny’s rivals are pushing not just for the bid for tariff relief to be rejected but for higher tariffs still to be imposed on imports from Indonesia. They are also lobbying for the removal of the tariff-free access to the U.S. that some Indonesian exports enjoy under a special program for developing nations. They say inaction would mean the end of America’s capacity to make raw stainless steel and the loss of as many as 5,000 jobs in Kentucky and Alabama.They also complain Allegheny has given a U.S. foothold to Tsingshan, which dominates both the global stainless steel industry and nickel market, thanks in part to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” plan to gain primacy over trade routes and resources across Asia and beyond.“This is one piece of a bigger initiative that China is playing,” says Stuart Holmes, chief financial officer of Outokumpu’s American arm, who calls the Allegheny-Tsingshan joint venture a “Trojan horse.”As described by the companies in their March 2018 announcement, the idea was to pair an idled Allegheny plant and the “unparalleled” access to the Indonesian nickel mine and nearby steel mill. Tsingshan and Allegheny could offer “very cost competitive” products in the U.S. and a “sustainably profitable and growing” business.Allegheny blamed tariffs for its share of losses from the joint venture that reached $11.4 million last year, according to recent financial results. In a Jan. 7 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that ran under the headline “I Support Trump’s Tariffs But Need an Exemption,” Wetherbee said Trump’s policies helped to reopen the Midland plant, but also meant it was “hemorrhaging money.” Wetherbee didn’t mention Tsingshan’s stake.Allegheny’s rivals call the pleas for tariff clemency misleading. The joint venture is undercutting them in the U.S., they argue, with imported steel so cheap a 25% tariff does little to stop it.The average monthly price paid for imports of semi-finished stainless steel from Indonesia was more than $1,000 per metric ton less last year than the world average, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Imports of semi-finished stainless products from Indonesia have also surged from nothing in 2016 to almost 47,000 metric tons last year, or almost 40% of U.S. imports by volume.Cris Fuentes, CEO of North American Stainless, calls Allegheny’s push for exemptions a “cynical plot” to circumvent Trump’s tariffs. “Attempts to dump Chinese-government subsidized stainless steel produced by the Chinese in Indonesia into the United States threaten American jobs and our national security,” he says.Allegheny insists it has tried buying stainless steel slabs from U.S. suppliers but complains of extortionate prices.“We pursued all sources — domestic and international — without success,” Wetherbee said in the emailed statement to Bloomberg. “Capacity in Indonesia was just coming on-line, so we fully vetted Tsingshan as a potential partner, Indonesia as a supply source, and structured our joint venture to fully comply with all applicable rules and regulations.”Allegheny’s competitors say they are simply offering U.S. market prices and call its reluctance to pay those evidence of the unfair advantage its Tsingshan relationship provides.“ATI simply doesn’t want to pay more than it is being charged by its Chinese joint venture partner,” said Lisa Jester, a spokeswoman for AK Steel Corp., which in December laid off 100 workers at another Pennsylvania plant because of reduced production. “We can make the steel just a few miles up the road from ATI.”While the fight in the U.S. is focused on Allegheny’s operations in Pennsylvania, the broader struggle is over one more than 9,000 miles away on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.Born out of a deal sealed when Xi visited the country in 2013, Tsingshan’s stainless mill benefits from an Indonesian ban on exports of unprocessed nickel. Chinese companies including Tsingshan are also investing in plants to make battery-grade nickel for use in China’s fast-growing electric-vehicle sector.That illustrates how, even as Trump has waged a trade war, China has extended strategic control over resources as envisioned in Xi’s Belt and Road project, competitors say.Tsingshan is open about its role. In a press release last July celebrating its accession to the Fortune 500, the company said it “has actively implemented ‘the Belt and Road Initiative,’” by “accelerating the development of international strategy” and “building large industrial parks in Indonesia” and other countries.In its statement to Bloomberg, Tsingshan said the company has no influence over Indonesian government policies and its operations predate Belt and Road by nearly half a decade. “Tsingshan had already built a mature and expanded supply chain well before that strategy was implemented,” it said.What’s more, the privately held company has its own rivals in China, and last year Beijing imposed anti-dumping duties on Indonesian stainless — a victory for Chinese state-owned producers over Tsingshan.That’s cold comfort to others in the industry. Tsingshan’s Indonesian mill can produce the 2 million tons of stainless steel slab consumed in the U.S. each year and a million tons more beyond that. Globally, Tsingshan says it produced more than 9 million tons of crude steel in 2018 and had revenue of $34.2 billion.Because it has an equity stake in the nearby Hengjaya mine via its Australian-listed owner, Nickel Mines Ltd., and a supply deal to boot, Tsingshan has a major structural cost advantage. Paired with the export ban on nickel, that represents an unfair subsidy, Allegheny’s rivals say.“Today we are arguing over a few slabs from Indonesia. If it becomes a precedent, this is an advantage in the market that would put the remaining melt shops in the industry out of business,” says Holmes of Outokumpu, a Finnish company that competes with Tsingshan internationally and turns scrap metal into stainless slab at a plant near Mobile, Alabama.The Indonesian export ban and Tsingshan’s access to cheap nickel have come alongside a carefully cultivated relationship with the government of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.During a meeting with the president in July, the company’s founder, Xiang Guangda, announced Tsingshan was increasing its investment in the country to $15 billion. Two months later, Indonesia announced it would bring forward the ban on nickel ore exports by two years.American producers aren’t the only ones calling the relationship unfair. In November the European Union took Indonesia to the World Trade Organization over what it says is the illegal nickel export ban. The U.S. has yet to join that fight. A spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative didn’t respond to requests for comment.Indonesia sent a delegation to Washington in February to lobby against any U.S. trade crackdown, and it was set to be high on the agenda for a visit this month by the Indonesian president before a summit in Las Vegas of Southeast Asian leaders was canceled. Indonesia has “the right to regulate trading including nickel that is a very important non-renewable mining product for the country,” Oke Nurwan, secretary-general of the Indonesian trade ministry, told Bloomberg.But to some in the U.S. steel industry, the dispute points to broader fights left unfinished in Trump’s trade war against China. The administration has said subsidies will be addressed in future negotiations. It is also working with the EU and Japan on new global subsidy rules targeted in large part at China.Kevin Dempsey, the American Iron and Steel Institute’s top policy official, says the Allegheny case shows how China’s industrial policies dovetail with its Belt and Road strategy, “fueling the overcapacity problem not just in China, but in some of these satellite countries like Indonesia.”“These are difficult issues that are not going to be resolved quickly,” he says.Dan DiMicco, a former CEO of Nucor Corp. who oversaw Trump’s trade policy team during the transition after the 2016 election and was a major advocate of steel tariffs, questions how Tsingshan could win approval to form a joint venture with Allegheny even as the U.S. was considering imposing national security-related tariffs on steel.“There’s no way there should be a joint venture with a Chinese company with a strategic interest in this country,” DiMicco says.When the Allegheny-Tsingshan project was announced in late 2017, it drew scrutiny from conservative politicians, who called for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to block it.A spokeswoman for Mnuchin declined to say whether CFIUS reviewed the transaction, citing confidential proceedings.Allegheny said in a statement that it “interacted directly with CFIUS” and “fully responded to all of their questions and information requests.”The U.S. Commerce Department, which rules on appeals for exemptions from the steel tariffs, declined to comment on Allegheny’s case or conversations with its rivals. Officials last year denied an exclusion request Allegheny filed in 2018. The company submitted a new request earlier this year.Analysts aren’t convinced Allegheny’s bid for relief will succeed.In an election year, with jobs at stake in battleground Pennsylvania and with Trump having signed his deal with China, the company appears to be betting that politics may be in its favor — or that it can blame tariffs for closing the plant.“They’re telling the government to go ahead and make the decision so they can move forward” and potentially shut down the Pennsylvania plant, says Phil Gibbs, an analyst at Keybanc Capital Markets.\--With assistance from Eko Listiyorini.To contact the authors of this story: Shawn Donnan in Washington at email@example.comJoe Deaux in New York at firstname.lastname@example.orgMartin Ritchie in Shanghai at email@example.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Brendan Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, Zoe SchneeweissStephen MerelmanFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.