Rare Earths in the South China Sea: Adding Fuel to the Geopolitical Fire – by Tobias Burgers and Scott N. Romaniuk (The Diplomat – November 9, 2023)


Competition for rare-earth mineral wealth on the seafloor could lead to further tensions and even conflict.

As the green energy revolution continues to progress and gain traction in Europe, the United States, and China, there is a noticeable surge in the demand for rare-earth metals (REMs), which are among the vital building blocks for clean energy technology.

The 17 elements that make up REMs, also known as rare-earth elements, are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium. Countries are actively seeking to acquire these vital resources, leading to a competitive race among nations.

The term “rare-earth elements” was first attributed to these compounds when they were discovered during the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, “earths,” was a designation used to describe materials that displayed resistance to further modification when subjected to heat. In contrast to other types of earth materials, such as lime or magnesia, these “rare earths” were discovered to be rather limited in abundance.

Despite their current prevalence in comparison to their historical availability and application, the perceived scarcity of these resources is assessed and established based on the level of competition surrounding them. Although most REMs do not exhibit the level of scarcity that their classification implies, they are now essential to modern technology and lifestyles.

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