In the dramatic escalation of tariff escalations and trade war tensions between China and the USA, China President Xi Jinping made a well-timed visit to see the JL Mag Rare-Earth Company Ltd., a state-owned complex in Ganzhou. Though he did not openly threaten, he sent a clear psychological message to Washington that China has more weapons in its arsenal to pressure the Trump Administration. What is the nature of the China role in rare earth minerals mining and how serious is the likelihood they could weaponize it?
In a May 20 article the China government paper, Global Times, wrote of the Xi Jinping visit, “The visit [is] seen as a sign of backing from the top leadership for the domestic rare-earth industry.” They further noted not so subtly, “Many have suggested that China should limit rare-earth exports to the US as a countermeasure to the US decision to slap tariffs on Chinese goods and cut supplies of semiconductors for Chinese companies.” The paper makes a point to note that rare earth metals from China were “among the few items excluded from the latest US tariff list.”
The question is how serious would it impact the US economy were China to ban exports of rare earths to the USA? Short answer, very serious.
In addition to its use in most electronic devices such as smart phones or laptops, rare earth minerals are absolutely essential to the Pentagon and the US military forces. According to Breaking Defense newsletter, rare earth components are essential for such major weapons systems as the nuclear-powered SSN-774 Virginia-class fast attack submarine; the DDG-51 Aegis destroyer; the F-35 Joint Strike fighter among others. They note that “Rare earths are also essential to precision-guided munitions, lasers, satellite communications, radar, sonar and other military equipment, added a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.”
Now the next question is to what degree is the US economy, especially its defense industrial base dependent on imports of China rare earths? The answer is almost 100%. According to a December, 2017 report by the US Geological Survey, China today supplies more than 90% of world rare earths. This has been the case since the late 1990s when the Government of China prioritized its development of the vital minerals.