- Rare earths are vital components for hi-tech and military equipment, and China dominates the global mining and refining industries. Washington is now scrambling to close this gap, but it will take years and a lot of money to do so.
As US-China relations hit new lows, Washington is redoubling efforts to address a major Achilles’ heel: its dependence on Beijing for rare earth elements – essential materials in various hi-tech products from smartphones and electric car batteries to Javelin missiles and F-35 fighters.
Republican senator Ted Cruz recently introduced a bill to spur US production of critical minerals, one of several bills before Congress prompted by rising concern that China could use this as leverage.
“It’s making people in Washington wake up and say this is not sustainable,” said Martijn Rasser, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “If China really is willing to restrict exports, we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years.”
But China’s strategic-metals grip is so strong that some estimate it could take over a decade to create a relatively secure US supply chain, and critics also say the US has made some significant missteps.
Strategic concerns over rare earths mirror larger calls to reduce US dependence on China as President Donald Trump threatens to “completely decouple” the two economies.
“The rare metals issue is a microcosm of the broader trend,” said Paul Haenle, chair at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center and a former China affairs director at the National Security Council. “[It] is particularly important because it also represents national security concerns.”