Previously, the trade conflict between the US and China centered on escalating tariffs. While tariffs make things more expensive; they don’t cut off supplies entirely. But when the US Department of Commerce effectively forbade US companies from providing US-made technologies, including chips and crucial software like the Google Play app store, to Huawei, it was a major blow to one of China’s highest-profile companies.
One possible arena for retaliation, in the minds of analysts: rare earth elements. China is the leading producer and processor of rare earths, with about 37 percent of the world’s reserves, according to a US Geological Survey report. The substances are used in a wide range of products including smartphones, airplanes, and medical devices, as well as military gear such as stealth technologies, radar, and night vision goggles. Neodymium, for example, is used to make magnets found in smartphone speakers and haptic feedback devices, while terbium is used to make solid state hard drives.
There’s not a lot of money in the rare earth trade. The Geologic Survey report put the value of US imports at $160 million in 2018. But their key role in many products means China could strike a blow against the US without great harm to its own economy. “From a purely dollar standpoint, these exports don’t generate a lot of revenue, so Beijing might be calculating that they could do some harm to the US economy,” says Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for a New American Security.
To drive home the possibility, Chinese President Xi Jinping last month toured a rare earth processing facility. A few days later, the People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, floated the idea of an export ban. Such a ban “would cause significant economic pain [to the US], and be an acute national security threat as well,” Rasser says. A Commerce Department report earlier this month included rare earths on a list of materials considered critical to the US economy and national security.
WHAT ARE RARE EARTHS?
The rare earths are 17 elements with similar magnetic and electrochemical properties that are useful for a range of products, particularly magnets and lasers. Although most appear in relative abundance in the Earth’s crust, they’re less often found in usable concentrations.
The elements are cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium.
It’s possible that China wouldn’t go so far as to cut off supplies entirely. “China would lose revenue, and their reputation as a global supplier would be severely tarnished,” Rasser adds. But as the trade conflict wears on, the possibility for more drastic retaliation from Beijing increases.
The US has a limited supply of rare earths, about 1 percent of the world’s reserves, according to the Geologic Survey. There is a rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas. There also are mines in Australia, Burundi, and Myanmar. Brazil, India, Russia, and Vietnam all have large reserves.
But nearly all the rare earths used in products that reach the US are processed in China, including ore mined in Mountain Pass. So while US companies might be able to diversify their sources of rare earths in the long term, in the short run the US will remain dependent on China.
Ores containing these rare earths typically contain radioactive material like thorium. To be useful for industrial purposes, rare earths must be isolated from raw ore through a complex chemical process that leaves behind radioactive waste. “Other countries have been fairly happy to let China take on all that processing,” Rasser says. “It’s a dirty business.”
One of the few rare earth processing facilities outside of China is the Australian owned Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Malaysia. The facility has long been controversial, though the Malaysian government recently said it will renew Lynas’ license to operate. A prior processing facility shuttered in 1992 due to health and environmental concerns.
The US has been preparing for the possibility of a rare earth export ban since at least 2010, when China reduced rare earth exports. China eased restrictions in 2012, after the World Trade Organization agreed to hear a complaint filed by the US. China dropped export limits for rare earths in 2015.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 instructing federal agencies to ensure the availability of critical minerals such as rare earth elements. This month’s Commerce Department report suggested a few ways to do that, including recycling rare earths and other materials, developing alternatives, diversifying supply chains, and increasing mining on federal lands. Rasser believes developing synthetic substitutes would, if possible, be the best way to go.
But independence from China remains years away. Mountain Pass plans to open its own processing plant next year, but it won’t be close to fulfilling US needs for quite some time. Any other new plant, such as one proposed by Lynas in Texas, would also take years to prepare.
That’s a problem even though America has stockpiles of some critical minerals. “If an export ban lasted long enough, you’d get to the point where you’d have to decide to stop production of certain items,” Rasser says. “Pretty soon the US government would have to start making some decisions about how to distribute these materials to be able to produce certain things.”
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