The US, the EU and Mexico, said they had asked the World Trade Organisation to set up a dispute settlement panel on the matter.

They say China’s export policy drives up world prices for the materials. But China’s Ministry of Commerce said the aim of the ‘measures on some raw materials is to protect the environment and our limited resources’.

The US says the materials at the heart of the dispute are bauxite, coke, fluorspar, magnesium, manganese, silicon metal, silicon carbide, yellow phosphorus and zinc. The raw materials case has an impact on billions of dollars of global trade, the US says.

There are a number of simmering trade disputes between the two countries covering several areas, with counter-claims of protectionism and a large US trade deficit with China.

The US wants to see Chinese restrictions lessened on US agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and business services, and improved protection of intellectual property rights and co-operation on clean energy technology. And in September the US imposed punitive duties of up to 35% on imports of Chinese-made tyres.

China responded with an anti-dumping probe into US car parts and chicken meat imports. Recently China also announced it would investigate that the three big US carmakers that were getting government subsidies, or selling their products in China at less than the cost of production.

The latest complaint to the WTO came after consultations failed to resolve the dispute. Referring to the minerals dispute, a Chinese commerce ministry statement said: "The regulations conform to the needs of China’s own [sustainable] development, while also advancing China’s efforts towards the sustainable development of the global economy."

It added: “The products being disputed actually form a very small percentage of Sino-US and Sino-EU trade.”