Revisiting Rare Earths: The Ongoing Efforts to Challenge China’s Monopoly – by Mayuko Yatsu (The Diplomat – August 29, 2017)

Despite current cost-effectiveness, it is not sustainable for the United States to rely on Chinese rare earth elements.

At the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held in May 2017, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and the acting Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo expressed their strong concern over the United States’ excessive dependence on foreign-produced rare earth elements and its potential impact on national security.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the United States relied 100 percent on imported rare earth elements in 2016, and more than 70 percent of those were from China. The Department of Defense is estimated to require 800 tons of such elements each year, and Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) addresses a vulnerability in the Department’s acquisition system in a recent bill.

Despite concern from Congress and the CIA, it was only one and half months after the hearing that a U.S. court ruled in favor of allowing a consortium of rare earths suppliers (including a Chinese mining company) to purchase the Mountain Pass mine in California — the only ready-to-be-operated rare earths mine in the United States.

Back in 2010, “rare earth elements” became a hot topic in the national security and foreign policy fields, mainly because of the political, economic, and security turmoil that followed China’s defacto embargo of those elements. In September of that year, China (the major supplier of rare earth elements) suddenly reduced its export quotas by 40 percent — not long after the collision of a Chinese fishing ship and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea. Due to the export restriction, Japan found it difficult to fill its domestic rare earth demands, and as a result the world market price of the elements skyrocketed.

Many countries which had relied on low-price rare earths from China quickly began exploring different solutions to try and compensate for the diminishing supply. For example, they secured other supply routes, examined recycling methods, and developed advanced manufacturing technologies which did not require those particular elements.

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