Amid the high and thankfully still-rising levels of concern about America’s dangerous levels of dependence on medical supplies from China, it’s critical to remember that what I call health security isn’t the only form of national security that’s been seriously compromised by reckless pre-Trump policies toward the People’s Republic. The nation’s technology security has been and remains at risk, too, as two recent reports on critical minerals valuably remind.
The problem centers on a group of 16 elements (some say 17) that are called “rare earths.” And they’re not only rare (at least in terms of amounts large enough and concentrations high enough to extract easily and at reasonable cost). They’re crucial to high tech manufacturing – including for all the hardware needed to capitalize on accelerating breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics, and therefore vital to cutting-edge weapons and related military systems. Worst of all: China controls nearly all their worldwide production.
Even the Obama administration – which was at best brain-dead on China policy and at worst corrupt – recognized the fix America was in due to China’s dominant rare earths position. It’s concerns were roused by a Chinese ban on rare earths exports to Japan during a diplomatic dispute. But the Obama-nauts made no meaningful progress in reducing reliance – in part because of environmental regulations on the operations of the only remaining mine for the substances located in on U.S. territory that were actually tightened by Obama. Eventually, he approved the facility’s purchase by a new company, MP Materials, that’s almost a tenth owned by a Chinese investor – which of course means that it’s at least in part owned by the Chinese government.
The Trump administration seems more determined to create a genuine fix. But according to this Reuters report (which also contains most of the above background), it faces an excruciating dilemma. The fastest way to reduce America’s dependence on supplies from China may be to revive government business with that lone domestic mine (located in California and called Mountain Pass) that MP materials says has been suspended by Trump.
The other leading near-term option, observes author Ernest Scheyder, seems to be Pentagon approval (and funding for) the processing in the United States of rare earths imported from Australia – obviously another offshore source, but at least a longstanding U.S. treaty ally.
Washington is also sponsoring the search for more domestic deposits of rare earths that could substitute for supplies from China, as well as for ways to recycle these materials. But even if both projects succeed, any American efforts to revive a significant U.S. industry will need to overcome China’s cheap labor advantage and Beijing’s willingness to price the competition out of rare earths markets – two main reasons for the U.S.-based industry’s demise in the first place.
Meanwhile, a post yesterday on the OilPrice.com website explains the special importance of efforts to break China’s near-monopoly on worldwide supplies of one of these rare earths – cesium. According to author Lynsay Birdall, cesium is vital for its role and potential in advanced healthcare technologies as well as in next-generation 5G communications technologies – which will be key for so much further and closely related economic, overall technological, and national defense progress. When it comes to 5G (where China holds the global lead in much hardware manufacturing), cesium is needed for the super-accurate time-measurement capabilities central to creating its real-time connectivity capabilities. And these in turn are responsible for the vast potential of 5G-enabled advances in mobile networks, the entire internet, and GPS systems.
Birdall reports that only three mines in the entire world can produce this technological equivalent of the finest diamonds, and the only two still open for business (in Canada and Australia) are controlled by China.
Fortunately, another high-grade cesium deposit has been found. It’s also in Canada, but at least its fully controlled by a Canadian company – Power Metals Corp. Unfortunately, the only U.S. cesium-specific measure reported by Birdall is a 2018 decision to add it to the federal government’s official list of critical materials. The list’s creation was approved under Obama in 2010. But not until a December, 2017 directive by Mr. Trump was Washington directed to develop foreign dependence-reduction strategies.
“The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths,” then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said in 1992. The United States has done a terrific job in enhancing its energy independence by reducing the dysfunctional Middle East’s role in its energy supply picture. Achieving rare earth independence should be viewed as at least as crucial.