Rare earth elements between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China
The “rare earth elements”, also called rare earth metals or rare earth oxides, or lanthanides are a set of 17 soft white heavy metals.
The uses, applications and demand for rare earth elements have grown over the years. Globally, most rare earth elements are used for catalysts and magnets in traditional and low carbon technologies. Other important uses of rare earth elements are applicable to the production of alloys, glass and high performance electronics, such as for petroleum refining and diesel additives. Rare earth elements in this category are used in hybrid and electric vehicle engines, wind turbine generators, hard drives, portable electronics, cell phones, microphones, speakers, etc.
This is another area, which also falls under clean and environmentally friendly energy, in which the United States and China are playing an important game.
At a summit between the United States, Japan, India and Australia held not so long ago, the strengthening of cooperation on rare earth elements between the four countries has become a key topic. The United States has always hoped to reduce its dependence on rare earths and minerals from other countries. But the U.S. government’s review of major mineral and rare earth supply chains indicates that even with sweeping changes, it will still take at least a decade for the United States to become self-sufficient.
Indeed, over the past three years, the US administration’s attention to rare earth issues has increased. Rare earth elements have become a key test for some American politicians to prove that “China threatens the security of the United States”, and have also become a major motivation for the White House to reformulate its rare earth policy. Indeed, over-politicizing the rare earth problem and even linking it to national security will do more harm than good to both the People’s Republic of China and the United States itself.
First, the United States does not have a clear understanding of the current state of the rare earth mining industry. Currently, the vast majority of rare earth products are made in China, and this is because China’s low-cost mining has led to the closure of rare earth mines in other countries. Therefore, the pattern of rare earth elements as a chain of gradually developing processing industries in China is not the result of China’s monopoly, nor of rare earth mining in the People’s Republic of China.
Currently, China’s rare earth reserves have grown from over 70% of global production to around 30%, making China the world’s largest importer of rare earth elements. In fact, many countries have rare earth mines, and the rare earth reserves outside of China can be used by anyone for hundreds of years.
From today’s perspective, the advantage that Chinese industry derives from rare earth elements is gradually shifting from the scale of extraction to that of processing. The processing of rare earths is crucial for China, as most of the major patents in the production of rare earths are still controlled by Western countries.
First, future global competition focuses on the capacity and capacity for technological innovation. The key way to improve Chinese industry through the possession of rare earth elements lies in technological innovation, rather than expanding the market share of rare earth mining and processing.
Although China has tightened its control over the rare earth industry in recent years, this has not been done simply through an export ban, but mainly through improved environmental protection and regulatory requirements. technological processing to promote the improvement of the industry. While these measures have boosted the prices of rare earth products, they are far from threatening US national security.
Second, the actions of the United States have increased their financial burden. During President Trump’s administration, the White House tied the supply of rare earth elements to national security and joined with Australia and other countries in calling for product exclusion Chinese-based rare earths in the defense sector.
Nevertheless, since the human and environmental costs of rare earth mines in Western countries are much higher than those in developing countries, it is absolutely unlikely that the minerals they extract will be competitive in the market, and Western governments will pay. for that.
Just for the imaginary Chinese threat, the US Department of Defense is investing huge amounts of capital, which will further increase the burden on citizens due to the country’s high budget deficit.
In addition, the rare earth processing industry almost no longer exists in the United States. The rare earth elements extracted there must be transported to China for processing. This so-called “getting rid of addiction to Chinese rare earth elements” is actually a self-delusion. If the United States wants to rebuild its entire chain of rare earth processing plants, it will not survive relying solely on the arms industry (as in the case of Afghanistan in 2001-2021) , unless the US administration convinces Congress that it can use taxpayer dollars to subsidize military installations around the world indefinitely.
Before Congress decides on any step in an industry, entrepreneurs rarely venture to invest in building dedicated rare earth element factories, as in this case. Therefore, the White House’s expectation of “ten years of self-sufficiency” is in fact an overly optimistic and unrealistic assessment.
Until China fully implements its ban on rare earth exports, it will be difficult for the United States to rebuild its rare earth industry. It was President Trump’s hope to bring manufacturing back to the United States through the imposition of tariffs and tariffs.
Third, the weakening of mutual trust in Sino-US cooperation can easily lead to strategic misjudgments. In the current complex international economic and political situation, China and the United States are both competitors and partners. The competition between China and the United States is not a fight to the death between opponents who cannot stand each other, but requires healthy competition and cooperation on the basis of mutual trust. For a long time, the competition between the two countries will mainly focus on the economic and technological sectors, especially the high-tech sectors, which will determine the future of the two countries and also of the whole world.
Some politicians and interest groups in the United States have been spreading the generic “Chinese threat theory” for their own interests. The “rare earth threat theory” in particular obviously bears the shadow of the US military industrial group and mine owners.
When policies are subjected to interest groups, if the proliferation of conspiracy theories and threats is not contained, they will weaken mutual trust in cooperation between countries, and even increase the risk of miscalculation. strategic between the two great powers. This is detrimental to peaceful global development.
China must also be direct and not immerse itself in the context of low-priced rare earth raw materials and / or monopoly reserves of these minerals. The objective pursued by the People’s Republic of China is to transform a country of rare earth extraction into a country of transformation and production of rare earths. This has been happening since large amounts of funding have been invested in rare earth science and technology – projects that are making great strides.
In short, the US policy of rare earth independence is wishful thinking and has no practical significance to the United States itself.
Regardless of what others may think, as long as the People’s Republic of China continues to adhere to a pragmatic policy in the rare earth industry and maintains open cooperation on development concepts – oriented towards innovation and continuous improvement of the scientific and technological level of the rare earth industry – it can become a strong pillar of national development, but it will also present itself as a business card that shows the level of its industrial technology, as well as its political credit at the international level.
Professor Valori is President of the International World Group