China Raises Threat of Rare-Earths Cutoff to U.S. – by Keith Johnson and Elias Groll (Foreign Policy – May 21, 2019)

https://foreignpolicy.com/

Beijing could slam every corner of the American economy, from oil refineries to wind turbines to jet engines, by banning exports of crucial minerals.

With a simple visit to an obscure factory on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping has raised the specter that China could potentially cut off supplies of critical materials needed by huge swaths of the U.S. economy, underscoring growing concerns that large-scale economic integration is boomeranging and becoming a geopolitical weapon.

With the U.S.-China trade war intensifying, Chinese state media last week began floating the idea of banning exports of rare-earth elements to the United States, one of several possible Chinese responses to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to jack up tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods and blacklist telecoms maker Huawei.

U.S. oil refiners rely on rare-earth imports as catalysts to turn crude oil into gasoline and jet fuel. Permanent magnets, which use four different rare-earth elements to differing degrees, pop up in everything including ear buds, wind turbines, and electric cars. And China dominates their production.

“It would affect everything—autos, renewable energy, defense, and technology,” said Ryan Castilloux, the founding director of Adamas Intelligence, a strategic metals consultancy. China supplies about 80 percent of the rare-earth elements imported by the United States, which are used in oil refining, batteries, consumer electronics, defense, and more.

Those concerns became a lot more tangible this week when Xi, accompanied by his point man for U.S. trade talks, visited a facility in the heart of China’s rare-earths industrial complex. Xi called for a new “Long March,” a reference to one of the founding epics of the Chinese Communist Party, in its economic war with the United States.

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