Breaking China’s grip on the rare earth elements supply chain
Japan and the United States depend on a potential adversary for some of the most crucial materials in high-tech production: rare earth elements. Rare earths are 17 elements which include: scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium , erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium.
These elements are important in the production of mobile phones, computer hard drives and medical imaging equipment, electric vehicle engines, missile and aircraft guidance and control systems, optics, radars. , guided weapons and telecommunications.
In China, the control of rare earths is considered a major part of national policy. Japan and the United States, however, have chosen to depend on China for these items.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) will use these metals for political purposes, as we learned in 2010. After a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, China imposed a rare earth embargo on Japan because the captain of the Chinese boat had been arrested.
China’s strategic plans for the development of rare earths abroad
Although China controls less than 40% of the world’s rare earth deposits, a Rand Corporation Paper notes that it has increased its global share of supply by subsidizing the relocation of companies involved in the rare earth supply chain to China and through the acquisition of foreign companies. In 1995, the US Department of Defense lost its only supplier of special magnets used to manufacture Hellfire missiles when an American company moved to China.
Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road (一带 一路)” initiative, or BRI, has identified places where it can develop and secure rare earth elements. To quote a publication from the PRC chemical industry, “The countries along the Belt and Road are rich in mineral resources and have abundant new mineral technologies such as rare earths. China can use the BRI to maintain its grip on the rare earth market. ”
The case of Japan
The incident of a fishing boat with Japan in 2010 raised concerns about China’s dependence for processed rare earths. On September 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler in the Senkaku Islands area collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessels. The Japanese government arrested the trawler’s captain and intended to bring him to justice.
The arrest sparked a major diplomatic protest from China, as well as riots in Tianjin, Shanghai and a number of other Chinese cities with a corporate presence of Japanese citizens. These protests were probably orchestrated and controlled by the authorities of the PRC, as it is extremely difficult to engage in large-scale protests in China.
The PRC’s decision to impose an embargo on rare earth exports to Japan has fueled fears about China’s dependence on critical materials. According to Morning Message from South China, the PRC embargo prompted other countries to diversify their sources of rare earth elements and hurt exports of Japanese products from Chinese factories.
Today, Japan and the United States have learned what should have been obvious: knowing the supply chains for the production of vital products, not depending on a single source for vital materials, and never putting the industrial base of a nation at the mercy of an increasingly arrogant country. and hostile potential enemy like China.
The use of rare earth elements in weapon systems
A sobering body of facts from the US Congressional Research Service in 2013 shows how vital rare earth elements are to national defense. Each U.S. Virginia-class submarine would require approximately 9,200 pounds of rare earth materials, each Aegis destroyer, similar to the Kongo-class of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), would require approximately 5,200 pounds of these materials, and each F- 35 aircraft would require approximately 920 pounds of these materials. Rare earths are used in missile guidance and control systems, disk drive motors installed in airplanes, tanks, missile systems, lasers for enemy mine detection, and communication systems.
Problems posed by mining methods (costs / pollution)
If the acquisition of rare earth elements is essential to maintain technical and industrial independence vis-à-vis China, the exploitation of these resources is very expensive. As with petroleum, rare earth deposits must be in a profitable location and quantity to extract. Although rare earth elements are widely distributed on Earth, there are few economically feasible deposits to extract. There are deposits that can be mined in the United States and Japan, including submarine deposits around Japan.
In the United States today, the Mountain Pass mine in California is the only active rare earth metal mine. It produces about 10 percent of all rare earth concentrates, from which metals are mined, but the mined materials are shipped to China for processing.
In 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to address this American vulnerability. This has led US agencies to identify supply chains vulnerable to disruption necessary for national security. President Trump left office before all the steps were taken. However, soon after taking office, President Biden continued these policies in a new executive order, which is described below.
Sources of pollution will also be difficult to offset or eliminate. Mining causes environmental problems, including pollution. Mining processes can contribute to respiratory conditions, release powerful greenhouse gases and contribute to acid rain. Mining can render the land unusable for any other purpose and contaminate the surrounding soil.
US Government Actions Regarding Rare Earth Elements
In the United States Congress, a number of bills have been introduced to address the current state of rare earth element supplies in the United States. Although none of these bills has been enacted in full, some relevant provisions have been included in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
In the US executive, President Trump released Executive Decree 13817 to respond to what many observers saw as a strategic vulnerability of the United States. The premise of the order was that the United States’ dependence on imports of critical minerals made it vulnerable to the actions of foreign governments.
Just over a month after taking office, President Biden published Executive Decree 14017, essentially continuing actions authorized by President Trump. He ordered White House national security and economic officials to conduct a 100-day US supply chain risk review to ensure “resilient, diverse and secure supply chains. “.
Ways to follow
It is now widely accepted that there are ways to increase supplies of rare earths. Japan and the United States can develop resources and find ways to mine and extract rare earth elements without dangerous ecological and environmental damage. The United States can also form consortia with reliable allies and partners to store or develop rare earth sources. At the same time, we can learn a lesson from China and seek to develop foreign sources of rare earth elements.
A number of options are also available. There are significant deposits of rare earth elements in Greenland. However, environmental concerns must be taken into account. It is a place where Japan, the United States or European allies could develop rare earth mines.
Japan also has the potential to become a major source of rare earths in the future. Important deposits have been discovered in its Far Eastern territorial waters. Underwater mining, however, is a difficult process, so deposits can take a long time to mine.
In Brazil, there are deposits of rare earth elements. One can consider creating a trilateral rare earth relationship between the United States, Brazil and Japan, helping to protect against Chinese threats of a rare earth embargo.
Australia has some of the highest percentages of rare earth element mining operations in existence. To diversify its markets, Australia has turned to allies and partners in the “Quad”, the economic and strategic cooperation between Australia, Japan, the United States and India. Quad countries could contribute to the development of rare earths and mining.
China’s control over the supply of usable and refined rare earth elements undermines national security. Neither the United States nor Japan has a strategic plan or vision for ensuring their own technological and national security success in this area.
The US Congress and the Japanese National Diet must develop legislation to safely extract and refine rare earth elements, cooperate with their allies and partners, and break China’s grip on the rare earth supply chain.
Authors: Larry M. Wortzel and Kate Selley
Dr Larry Wortzel is Senior Fellow in Asian Security at the American Foreign Policy Council. Mr. Wortzel served as commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission for 19 years, from November 2001 to December 2020. Previously, he served as commission chair for two years. A seasoned researcher in Asia with extensive government and military experience, Dr. Wortzel completed two assignments as a military attaché at the US Embassy in China. Ms. Kate Selley joined the American Foreign Policy Council in January 2021 as a Junior Fellow. A former PSAC research intern, she specializes in China’s international and domestic politics, as well as energy security. She is currently a research analyst at Ascendant Program Services, focusing on trade and development projects in the Indo-Pacific.