China today can claim control over the global production of rare earth elements (REE). These metals are a vital input to almost everything technological, from smart phones, to electric vehicles (EVs), to wind turbines, to intercontinental missiles, and more.
Periodically Beijing flexes its economic muscles by threatening export bans. Most recently it has cut off sales of these special metals to the United States in retaliation to Washington’s ban on the sales of advanced computer chips to China and restrictions on American investment in Chinese technology. The action against the United States is not the first time Beijing has employed this tactic. If it has the potential to pay short-term dividends, it is problematic as a long-term strategy.
The rare earth basket contains 17 metals. Each plays a vital role in the modern economy, for defense and for daily life. Lanthanum, for instance, helps produce colors on smart phone and computer screens, as does gadolinium. Two of these metals help speakers produce sound, neodymium and praseodymium. Terbium and dysprosium allow phones to vibrate during meetings when it is impolite to allow them to ring. This truncated list should give an idea of their extensive uses.
According to a study from the prestigious Brooking’s Institution, China presently produces some 60% of the world’s rare earth elements and processes 85% of them. This dominance has nothing to do however with a geological accident that has placed the bulk of rare earth deposits in Chinese territory. On the contrary, despite the word “rare” in the name, rare earth elements are far from rare. They are more abundant than both silver and gold. Nor are they especially concentrated. They are in China’s control presently only because the mining and refinement of these metals is environmentally destructive, something that until recently China cared less about than do the developed nations of the west. Americans eagerly shipped the environmental problem across the Pacific.
The United States, once self-sufficient in REE, now has only one operating mine, the Mountain Pass Mine operated by MP Materials in California’s Mojave Desert. From time to time, MP Materials has had to stop operation because of regulatory issues. Even what it brings out of the earth, it ships to China for the environmentally fraught business of separation and refinement.
While China has maintained the global flow of these metals, the world has remained willing to let matters stand as they are. But if Beijing too actively, severely, and frequently denies users these vital materials, it is a good bet that the developed west and Japan will cultivate other sources and develop refining techniques acceptable to their more environmentally sensitive dispositions.