Lawmaker: China’s rare earths threat ‘could cripple a nation’

May 30, 2019

China’s threat to restrict rare earth exports to the United States could have devastating results, a senior Republican lawmaker said.

"It goes into our rockets, our space program, satellite programs,” Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee overseeing U.S. diplomatic efforts, told the Washington Examiner. “All that stuff depends on rare earth metals and it could cripple a nation for sure.”

Those comments, from the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs subcommittee for Asia and the Pacific, show the threat has struck a nerve for American leaders.

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"I don’t think it's a checkmate, but I think it's a strong check,” Yoho said.

The maneuver has been long in the making. The Chinese government identified the “immense strategic significance” of these resources in 1992 and since pursued a near-monopoly of the international market. And in 2010, China withheld rare earths shipments from Japan in the midst of a dispute over fishing rights in contested waters of the East China Sea.

“If anyone wants to use the products made from our rare earth exports to try to counter China’s development, then the people from the southern Jiangxi Communist revolutionary base would not be happy, and the people of China will not be happy,” a spokesperson from the National Development and Reform Commission, an economic planning agency, said Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled a return to the rare earths tactic last week by visiting a mining facility, just days after President Trump signed an executive order empowering the federal government to bar a leading Chinese telecommunications company from the U.S. market. Likewise, Xi used his trip last week to commemorate the “Long March,” a year-long strategic withdrawal that saved the Chinese Communists from early defeat in a civil war that eventually brought the current regime to power.

Chinese officials could see the rare earths supply as an advantage beyond the trade dispute.

“This is no longer just a trade war,” Dean Cheng, an expert in China’s military doctrine and scientific infrastructure at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner. “The Chinese are using pretty scary terms, pretty attention-getting terms that should raise some concerns ... this is becoming a much bigger issue.”

U.S. officials have anticipated that rare earths could be the start of what the Pentagon deemed "a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security.” But it is less of a danger for the United States in 2019 than it would have been, because China’s use of the tactic against Japan kicked off a burst of mining activity around the world.

“Unlike 2010, then, we don’t have to go and find new material, we just have to reopen mines and processing facilities,” Cheng said. “And this time around if the Chinese actually do look to cut off global rare earths supplies then they’re going to lose market [share].”

Most of that development took place outside the United States, which still only has one rare earths mine in operation. A bipartisan group of lawmakers attempted to facilitate U.S. production of rare earths in 2013, but then-President Barack Obama’s administration strongly opposed the bill due to environmental concerns. Rare earths, as Cheng noted, “aren’t that rare” worldwide, they’re just hard to find in large quantities, often alongside elements such as uranium.

“You end up with a lot of slightly radioactive waste that has to be safely handled,” the Heritage Foundation analyst said of rare earths mining. “So if you are willing to put up with pollution, other places could produce more rare earth.”

Yoho thinks national security issues should trump environmental concerns, in the wake of the latest threats from China. “If people can't see a problem here, you know, they're living in a fantasy land,” he said. “We have to have a critical minerals stockpile in this country for national security.”

That reaction gives a glimpse of how the U.S.-China competition could play out across a range of industries. “In the longer term, then, this is actually going to create some interesting problems for China,” Cheng said. “You’re creating two supply chains.”


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