Pictured: Mined ore containing rare earth materials on display in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China. (Image source: Brücke-Osteuropa/Wikimedia Commons)
One of China's most significant advantages in the race to dominate future hi-tech industrial production, among just about everything else, is its chokehold on "rare earth materials" (REM). These are materials -- and the raw minerals from which they are extracted and processed -- vital to the manufacture, for instance, of advanced weapons, fossil-free alternative energy systems, communication devices, computer products, and microelectronic networks.
It is an area in which China has already established dominance . The Chinese Communist Party's near monopoly on most of these 17 rare earth materials is by now a US national security vulnerability of enormous strategic importance. China's October 13 decision to curtail the export of these vitally needed rare earth materials should serve as an urgent warning to the US to seriously begin developing an independent supply chain of these materials.
The good news is that the Trump Administration had the foresight in 2017 to issue an Executive Order to begin the process of decoupling the US from its dependency on the Communist Chinese regime for REM. This Executive Order was followed up in early October by a Presidential declaration of a national emergency in mining, in an apparent effort to establish a US domestic REM stockpile for military requirements. China's announced intent to ban the export of strategic REM to foreign countries could spur the US quickly and fully to implement President Trump's directive to establish an independent REM supply chain. The Defense Department has not acted with the sense of urgency demanded by the President. In short, the DOD is dragging its feet. Consequently, if US-China relations plummet to the point where conflict appears imminent, America's military would be disadvantaged should the Chinese decide to sever exports of REM to the US.
Presently, the US Air Force's most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, requires about 1,000 pounds of rare earth materials, most of which are presently acquired from China. The US is also dependent on China for REM required for laser guidance missiles, other advanced weapons systems and space satellites.
Many US quality-of-life domestic products -- many medical devices, such as scanners, electric automobiles, and fluorescent lighting -- also rely on the availability of the Chinese REM.
To decouple, the US could establish new supply lines with countries that have unexploited deposits of REM. These include Australia, Afghanistan, India, Russia, Brazil and countries in Central Asia. The US also could capitalize on its considerable undersea technological expertise to extract REM deposits from the ocean floor. US allies, such as NATO nations, could invest in independent REM supply lines as well as create stockpiles of REM to lessen their own vulnerability regarding China,
The US, to nurture a national and internationally competitive industry, could also borrow a tactic from China by subsidizing domestic companies to invest in REM extraction and processing enterprises. Current REM sites in the US that have the potential to expand rapidly, particularly if the government provides financial and tax-free incentives, include Elk Creek Mine in Nebraska, Bokan Mine in Alaska, and Bear Lodge Mine in Wyoming. Presently, the most profitable REM site in the US is Mountain Pass Mine in California. Potentially, the most valuable US site is an area in West Texas which contains 16 of the 17 known rare earth materials.
Some of these REM and their related end products include:
- Barite - fracking process for natural gas extraction
- Cerium - camera lenses for telescopes
- Dysprosium - magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines
- Erbium - nuclear power plant rods
- Europium - lasers
- Gallium - semiconductors
- Lanthanum - specialized lighting
- Lithium - batteries
- Praseodymium - jet airplane engines
- Promethium - batteries for nuclear powered systems
- Yttrium - laser-guided missiles and bombs.
In addition to these REM, there are other critical materials that the US no longer produces. Consequently, industries are forced to import these items. An additional benefit is that the natural gas extracted by fracking helps to keep the US energy independent. Graphite, a necessary ingredient for smartphone batteries, is another critical substance.
If the US were to decide that breaking China's monopolistic stranglehold on most of these materials was a national priority, Washington could also build REM processing plants and supply chains. Not only would these investments provide jobs, but also only then could the US proceed to transform these critical REM oxides into metallic alloys from which end products are created.
If the US remains dependent on China for REM, there may come a time when America might be forced to sacrifice a foreign policy interest -- a dilemma experienced by Japan, also heavily dependent on China for REM. When China and Japan became involved in a maritime fishing dispute, Beijing cut off shipments of REM to its neighbor. The dispute was settled only when Tokyo pleaded with China to resume the export of REM and the Japanese Coast Guard in the East China Sea released the captain of a Chinese trawler that had been fishing in disputed waters. The US would do well to avoid a similar predicament by quickly decoupling its economy from dependency on China for rare earth materials -- and if possible, from everything else.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.