Will Beijing weaponise its rare earth supply in the US-China trade war?


There are 17 rare earth elements listed in the periodic table which, contrary to their name, are as abundant in the Earth’s crust as tin or lead. However, rare earths are always fused with other minerals which makes many countries reluctant to invest in rare earth mines because they are too expensive and polluting to extract and refine in commercially viable quantities

Rare earths are essential to high-tech, renewable-energy, and defence-related technologies. Although China is responsible for 71 per cent of the world’s production, Brazil, Vietnam, Russia, India, Australia and America also have large reserves.

Rare earths are essential components for a wide range of everyday applications including, energy, electronics, smartphones, electric vehicles and wind turbines

Rare earths are used as magnets in compressors and motors
Three minerals are used in LED screens, their red-green-blue phosphors help power the screen
Rare earths are also used to make computer hard disks, as well as CD-ROM and DVD disk drives

Rare earth elements can be found in various parts of mobile phones including cameras, batteries, colour screens and more

Only 0.25 g of rare earths are needed to create a mobile phone even though they are vital for almost all the parts


Sophisticated missiles use rare earths in their guidance systems and sensors

Rare earth magnets are usually called permanent magnets, or perma-magnets. Their greater strength than traditional magnets allows smaller and lighter magnets to be used in applications.

America is a major importer of rare earth compounds and metals which are needed for the country’s defence, energy, electronic, smartphone, electric vehicle and wind turbine industries.

The US classifies rare earths as critical minerals and with almost 80 per cent of America’s imports coming from China, the US looks increasingly vulnerable to disruptions to their supply chain. There is mounting speculation China might use rare earths as a bargaining chip in future trade war negotiations. Beijing previously enacted a ban on exports of rare earths to Japan in late 2010, a move thought to be in response to a territorial dispute between the neighbouring countries.

Japan and China are currently America’s only sources for rare earth magnetic materials which are vital components in hybrid and electric vehicles as well as computer hard drives.

Rare earth compounds and metals are essential to America’s defence industry

Occurrence and mines

Despite their name, rare earths are not particularly rare – there are many deposits throughout the world

This map indicates occurrences of rare earths around the world. While some mines are more productive than others, it is likely there are many more deposits to be discovered

Although the accumulation of rare earth elements is common, they are not typically found in concentrated forms but are instead fused with other metals and oxides as compounds. As a result, ore deposits are rarely economical to exploit and production tends to be low

Occurrence by countries

These are the seven countries with the largest rare earth reserves

China has the largest reserves of rare earths in the world at its disposal and is the world's top producer and exporter. Production is centred on six state-owned mining companies but illegal extractions are common. The government is currently fighting to eliminate illegal mining to ensure the country’s reserves of rare earth minerals remain the highest in the world.

Brazil and Vietnam have the joint second largest reserves. Most of Brazil’s deposits consist of monazite with a large accumulation of light rare earths such as neodymium and praseodymium. Despite these sizeable reserves, Brazil is not a big producer and even reduced its production last year.

Like Brazil, Vietnam has 22 million metric tonnes in reserves but unlike Brazil, Vietnam wants to increase production in the coming years. Production doubled year on year in 2018, bringing the total to a still meagre 400 tonnes.

Even though the Eurasian country has far fewer rare earth reserves, production is much greater than Brazil and Vietnam. Russia is developing an ambitious project to produce more material in the Yakutia region, where it is estimated there is a deposit of 154 million tonnes, almost 10 per cent of the world’s total.

India is home to 35 per cent of the world’s beaches and sand minerals so the eastern and southern coasts of India have great potential for the country to develop mining exploitation.

Australia began mining rare earths in 2007 and despite only having the sixth most reserves, was the second largest mining country in 2018. Extraction is expected to continue increasing.

The Mountain Pass mine is the only rare earths mine currently operational in America. US production is very low with America importing almost 80 per cent of its rare earths from China. Is this about to change?

Global rare earth reserves are estimated to total 120 million metric tonnes. With demand for rare earth minerals ramping up, it will be interesting to see how countries like Malaysia, with an estimated 30,000 metric tonnes of reserves, will contribute to supply in the future. Malaysia's government, however, has recently threatened to pull the licence for a rare earth refinery run by an Australian mining company in Kuantan over environmental concerns.

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