Until recently, discussions involving rare earth elements (REEs) were consigned to the realms of geology, chemistry, and academic conferences. Today, however, everyone seems to be discussing REEs, and for good reason. From clean energy to consumer electronics, electric vehicles to national defense, REEs are absolutely crucial. Worryingly, China now controls the vast majority of global production and supply, a fact that should fill every reader with concern.
To follow up bad news with even more bad news, my introduction actually downplayed the significance of REEs. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a scientific agency of the United States government, REEs are vital components of more than 200 products “across a wide range of applications, especially high-tech consumer products, such as cellular telephones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, and flat-screen monitors and televisions.” GPS technology, laser devices, radar and sonar systems, all four cannot function without REEs. The modern world cannot function without REEs.
How did we get to a point where the Chinese Communist Party now pulls the REE-strings? It wasn’t always this way. Two decades ago, as authors at the USGS note, China controlled 38 percent of world production and the U.S. controlled 33 percent. However, by 2008, China accounted for 90 percent of world production of REEs. By 2011, that figure was 97 percent. Between 2003 and 2008, the CCP radically changed the amount of REEs it produced and exported. In short, China produced more, but exported less. The CCP also made a concerted effort to “limit the number of Chinese and Sino-foreign joint-venture companies that could export REEs from China,” according to USGS.
Although the authors make a number of compelling points, they miss out on a very important piece of information. The CCP has also expanded its mining operations, extracting REEs in various countries around the world, from South America to sub-Saharan Africa.
To date, the CCP has pumped somewhere in the region of $800 million into mining operations in Venezuela, a country that has an abundance of gold and diamonds, iron ore and coal, uranium and coltan. In the South American country, coltan is referred to as “blue gold.” It’s easy to see why. Without coltan, no cell phones, no laptops, and no internet connection. The essential mineral also plays a vital role in the function of various weapons; it does so by preventing them from overheating and basically exploding. Laser-guided bombs require coltan to function, as do military drones. The CCP, obviously aware of this fact, is busy bleeding Venezuelan mines dry.
The CCP’s presence can also be felt in countries like Chile and Peru. The former is home to the world’s largest copper mine and is the world’s largest producer of the reddish-gold colored metal. Its biggest customer? China, of course. The same is true in Peru. This has been the case for years. Meanwhile, in Africa, the CCP is also busy extracting REEs, Take Congo, for example, where mining conflicts lead to murder; the CCP now owns 15 of the country’s 17 cobalt mines.
So, to ask an obvious but important question: Can the United States and its allies do anything to counter the threat from China?
Yes. Other countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, and Vietnam have plenty of REEs. Australia, no friend of the CCP, is home to one of the largest reserves of REEs in the world. As tensions between Canberra and Beijing continue to escalate, the bond between the United States and Australia continues to grow stronger. Another of the United States’ allies, Canada, is home to some 15 million tons of REEs. Obviously, being overly reliant on other countries for resources is a dangerous game to play, even if these countries happen to be allies. The quote about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man how to fish is applicable here. Self-sufficiency is key.
A year ago, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at addressing the the production and supply of REEs, medical devices, as well as semiconductor chips. In March of 2021, the Department of Energy unveiled a $30 million initiative designed to secure invaluable minerals, such as cobalt and lithium, both vital in the production of batteries for electronic devices and autonomous vehicles. Is $30 million really enough to secure the domestic supply chain of critical elements and minerals? Considering the United States Air Force is willing to spend $78 million on one combat aircraft, I think not.
For those who moan and say that the Biden administration has already spent far too much money to date, let me offer a little push back. The future that awaits us is an exciting one, but it’s also full of uncertainties and innumerable dangers. Although very few things are certain in life, one thing is absolutely guaranteed: If China continues to control the production and supply of REEs, the western world will suffer immensely. To combat the threat, a high degree of self-sufficiency is required.
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of National Review, New York Post, South China Morning Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He can be found on Twitter at @ghlionn.