Reuters recently put out a piece warning that the economic standoff between the US and China could affect the rare-earth minerals market, which is vital for the production of supercomputers and many other high-tech parts:
The push comes weeks after China threatened to curb exports to the United States of rare earths, a group of 17 minerals used to build fighter jets, tanks and a range of consumer electronics.
The Pentagon wants miners to describe plans to develop U.S. rare earths mines and processing facilities, and asked manufacturers to detail their needs for the minerals, according to the document, which is dated June 27.
Responses are required by July 31, a short time frame that underscores the Pentagon’s urgency. The U.S. government’s fiscal year ends in September.
The U.S. Air Force, which is part of the Pentagon and created the document, confirmed the document’s existence. The Pentagon’s headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.
The responses will be reviewed by two government contractors, including Northrop Grumman Corp, which did not respond to requests for comment.
“The government wants to know how much of these minerals we could eventually be producing, and how soon,” said Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Corp, which is working to develop the Round Top rare earth deposit in the state’s western edge.
Several miners, though, declined to comment when asked if they will reply to the Pentagon, a sign of the sensitivity around rare earth mine development during the ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute.
The document does not directly promise loans, grants or other financial support to U.S. rare earths projects. But the Pentagon’s request is derived in part from the Defense Production Act (DPA), a 1950s-era U.S. law that gives the Pentagon wide berth to procure equipment necessary for the national defense.
Some type of financial assistance is ultimately expected for the industry after the Pentagon reviews the responses, according to industry analysts and consultants.
Although China contains only a third of the world’s rare earth reserves, it accounts for 80% of U.S. imports of minerals because it controls nearly all of the facilities to process the material, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
It is unclear how much money the U.S. military will spend to boost America’s rare earths industry as the DPA does not set a financial limit. The June Pentagon letter notes that government investments usually range from $5 million to $20 million per project.
“The overall goal is to secure and assure a viable, domestic supplier (of rare earths) for the long-term,” according to the nine-page document.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, which drafted the request, said it wants information related to U.S. rare earth “shortcomings, risks, and opportunities which may be addressed by investments” by the military.
“There is no guarantee that any submitted topic will” receive military support, Diana Carlin, the Air Force’s executive agent program manager for the DPA program related to procurement, said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
James Litinsky, co-chairman of MP Materials, which owns the Mountain Pass mine in California, said the United States needs “a sustainable supermajor for the Western supply of these minerals.” A supermajor would be a large producer that dominates the global industry.
MP Materials, the only existing U.S. rare earths facility, ships its ore to China for processing and has been subject to a 25% tariff since last month.
Some industry analysts have called for the Pentagon to broaden the scope of its study and commit to direct government funding of rare earth magnet and motor manufacturing, much like China’s government.
“The U.S. government doesn’t have a holistic approach to the entire rare earths supply chain, even now, and that’s a problem,” Jack Lifton, an industry analyst with Technology Metals Research LLC, said in an interview this week.
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The Pentagon’s request builds on several executive orders from President Donald Trump on strategic minerals, which he has said are critical for national defense.
Several U.S. senators have sponsored legislation in recent weeks designed to boost domestic production of lithium, rare earths and other strategic minerals. On Thursday, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, introduced a bill that would let rare earths producers form cooperatives, avoiding U.S. antitrust statutes.
None of the bills have passed yet.
The Pentagon has also held talks with rare earths suppliers in Malawi and Burundi, department officials told Reuters last month.
“There’s a heightened sense of urgency on developing a rare earth supply chain in North America,” said Don Lay, chief executive of Medallion Resources Ltd, which earlier this month said it was studying potential sites across North America to develop an extraction plant for rare earths. (source, source)
China is a major producer of rare earth elements, of which the US is a major buyer. Naturally, there will be effects in the real world if this happens.
But what this article does not mention is that the US has been aware of this problem for decades. In fact, the US is so aware of it that she appears to have been making extensive contingency plans to deal with it.
The US knew that she could not rely on China forever and has been extensively developing rare-earth mineral and oil mining operations all throughout southern Asia and Africa.
This both the reason why the US is staying in Afghanistan as well as it is likely why the US invaded Afghanistan and why the USSR invaded her as well during the 1980s. As many reports have noted, Afghanistan sits on a massive deposit of rare earth minerals valued at over $1 trillion dollars. Given Afghanistan’s geostrategic location and now these minerals, the person who controls access to said resources as well as the many historic travel routes that go through her leverages a particularly strong geopolitical position, especially if a war were to start.
But Afghanistan is not the only location. As I pointed out in January 2019, there is a tiny string of islands disputed between Russia and the US ally of Japan, called the Kuril or Senkaku. Either way, these tiny volcanic islands have been discovered to possess rare-earth mineral deposits so large and so diverse that it is estimated at current rates of use, they could supply the entire world for the next seven centuries.
Africa is another resource-rich area that I have discussed. Many people have termed Africa the “dark continent” to refer to either the blackness of the skin of so many of her inhabitants, or because of the many evil pagan practices that still persist there, but perhaps this term is best used to describe the “black gold” that US AFRICOM reports suggest exists under the surface of the most of the continent. With estimates of an oil field stretching from Senegal all the way to Congo, it would arguably be one of, if not the largest untapped reserve of oil in the world, and the US has been working to ensure that she gets a cut of it.
But make no mistake, oil is only part of this formula, since in the heart of the Congo there have been verified reports of massive deposits of rare-earth minerals discovered, which also have been the site of recent terrorist attacks from Islamic groups. Given that these attacks were the first of their kind in the nation, and how western governments have a consistent history of using terrorism as a tool of foreign policy, it appears that under the name of “counterterrorism” the US is moving further into Africa in order to secure further access to said mineral resources.
The Chinese are nowhere nearly as strategic in how they have approached their empire-building projects, which include attempting to exploit well-established routes in use for centuries by the Europeans while at the same time professing fantastical projects such as the “belt-and-road” initiative. Meanwhile, the Europeans, Turks, and Americans have been quietly working on building oil pipelines and railroad networks going towards the east from the west.
This is not to say that the Chinese do not pose a threat, or are not attempting to compete in a serious way. They are in fact doing so right now. However, what the Chinese are doing in public is what the Western world has been quietly doing for a long time while professing aloud what the Chinese are starting to do, thus suggesting that somehow the West is “behind” and in so doing is able to justify further investments into already-existing projects directed towards the same ends.
China can cut off the rare-earth mineral deposits she has all she wants. In the end, the ultimate loser will be China because she needs a buyer for her minerals, of which the Western world is the largest buyer. Russia does not need the Chinese, as she already has and is exploiting her deposits in Siberia, and to that the Russians do not want to even give the impression that they are dependent in any way on the Chinese for their economic needs as they fear (and correctly so) that the Chinese may see it as a weakness and attempt to invade Siberia. The West and her historical enemy of Japan will pay, and if China still refuses to sell, they will turn to their already developing new resources they have been working on quietly. The only thing that China will get is bad publicity and calls for further economic retaliation against her by the West. In either case, she loses.