Rare earths - a group of 17 vital elements used in missile systems, electric vehicles, computer screens and other technological devices - have been thrown into the limelight after China signalled that it may restrict shipments to the US.
Jin Baisong, a retired researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, noted China's rare earth export quota didn't have the desired effect, as smuggling of rare earths was rampant and some export companies falsified the customs code to evade the export quota. The manifestation of Washington's growing concern about securing resources and building supply chains, a federal report released June 4 announces six calls to action, 24 goals and 61 recommendations accompanied by timelines for accomplishment.
More efforts are needed to strengthen the supervision over the rare earth industry, severely crack down on violations of laws or regulations, cut off the dark chain, tighten export controls, and establish a review mechanism that keeps track of whole processes of rare earth exports, experts noted.
China is a major supplier of the resources - which power today's digital lives, from smartphones to military hardware - and as the trade conflict with Washington has escalated, Beijing has dangled a threat of cutting exports of rare earths as a counter-strike to U.S. tariffs.
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"The United States is heavily dependent on critical mineral imports".
The world's largest rare earth producer outside China will prioritise the United States military's needs when it starts production at its upcoming plant in Texas, the firm's chief executive has said.
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China dominates global processing capacity for rare earths, with Australia's Lynas Corp the only non-Chinese company with any significant capacity.
Apart from finding new deposits, the report calls for specific measures to encourage R&D, new supply chains, additional and publicly available exploration data, land access and permitting, a workforce with appropriate skills and expertise, as well as worldwide trade and co-operation.
To develop the USA industry, it proposed streamlining approvals of mining permits, and removing regulatory obstacles for critical mineral development.
Reports also indicate that the facility will be able to accommodate the separation of lanthanum (used in studio lighting and projector lights) and neodymium (used in flints and lighters), as well as other light rare-earth minerals.
And here another irony emerges: the U.S. has 1.4 million metric tons in rare earth mine reserves, 93 times the nation's output a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Geological Service website; it should be relatively simple to restart mothballed facilities.
"If China indeed weaponizes rare earths, the US will not have enough supply because it needs some lead time to build their own processing capacity, which now is zero", she added.