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Featured image: Screenshot from Google Maps showing east Asia with China centered. 

Green Economy

Pentagon: US & Democratic Allies Need More Rare-Earth Mines

Renewable energy, mobile devices, and the Internet of Things are all doing a lot of good in the world. We’re reducing pollution, starting to address climate change, automating many tasks that we used to do manually, and even making life a little more convenient around the house. All of these things require rare-earth minerals to be mined so that rare-earth elements can be obtained. Neodymium seems to be the most well known rare-earth element in the cleantech community, as it is commonly used in electric motors, generators, and wind turbines, but 16 other elements are also used by militaries for defense, hospitals, and clinics to treat illness and disease, and for other life-and-death industries.

Rare-Earth Elements As A Weapon

There’s one potential problem, though: China is currently the biggest supplier of rare-earth elements, and it has been threatening to withhold them from countries that don’t toe the line. China has most recently threatened the United States with this, but it’s actually done it to Japan in the past.

“Will rare earths become a counter weapon for China to hit back against the pressure the United States has put on for no reason at all? The answer is no mystery,” a state-run newspaper said in 2019. “Undoubtedly, the U.S. side wants to use the products made by China’s exported rare earths to counter and suppress China’s development. The Chinese people will never accept this!”

The threatened supply cut of rare-earth elements didn’t happen in 2019, but recent events have renewed concerns that this could happen in the future. Rising tensions over Taiwan, a disputed territory since the end of a civil war in 1949 that is de facto controlled by a democratic government, have been ratcheting up. It has even gotten to the point where President Biden has had to answer questions about it in a town hall. Biden says the United States has a commitment to come to Taiwan’s aid if the mainland government tries to control it by force, so it’s an issue that could lead to deeper conflict — and even war — between the United States and China.

War seems unlikely in the near future, though. The Taiwan issue has flared up many times since 1949, with tensions and threats much worse in the past. In 1996, the Chinese Communist Party shot missiles over the island to threaten newly-elected pro-independence politicians, and President Bill Clinton sent aircraft carrier groups to the area, and even that impasse did not end in war. Truth be told, neither side really wants a war because it would cost both countries dearly.

That having been said, military leaders are still preparing for such a conflict because motivations and the balance of power between the US and China may change in the future. One top US admiral thinks such a shift could happen in the next 6 years, but others estimate that it still would not be in Beijing’s interest to have a war even in the next 10 years.

While I’m sure everyone involved would rather a war never occur, cutting off rare-earth elements would likely happen as part of such a conflict, so it makes sense for the United States and its allies to be prepared for that. Losing access to products and services that rely on rare-earth elements would not only be an inconvenience, but would cause real harm and even cost lives when medical treatments become unavailable.

The Pentagon Is Looking At Two Conflicting Issues On This

When the Pentagon decided to take a deep look into this issue, it found that it wasn’t a simple issue to solve. The Pentagon relies on complex supply chains just like a big business does, so the military itself would be affected by the denial of access to rare-earth elements. Even if the Pentagon were to somehow insulate itself from the problem, the effect that such a thing would have on the overall economy still leaves a powerful pressure point to be used against the military’s Commander-in-Chief (The President of the United States).

On top of the complexity of the problem are conflicting goals. In the United States and most developed countries, it’s not a simple matter of putting miners to work and getting more minerals. Environmental regulations, labor regulations, health and safety rules, as well as other considerations meant to guard human well being slow this process down, despite it needing to speed up.

“We are under no illusions about the competing pressures facing the U.S. mining industry.” a defense department spokesperson said. “We want to work with (miners) to accelerate the transition from the lowest cost, technically acceptable sourcing, to one that reflects our values.”

The challenge will be to both increase production in the US and allied nations while also keeping operations safe and healthy for all involved, directly or indirectly.

If The Pentagon Is Preparing For It, Others May Want To Do The Same

The owners of private companies that use rare-earth minerals may want to take notice of this and prepare themselves, especially if their services are life-and-death in nature. Hospitals, imaging facilities, and manufacturers of medical equipment would be wise to take a look at their particular situations and decide how best to handle the possibility of losing access to rare-earth elements and products that contain them.

Things they need to ask include:

  • What are the supply chains for their rare-earth elements? Do they end in China?
  • Are alternative supply chains available, and would that change if everyone was looking for alternatives at the same time?
  • What is the shelf life of rare-earth containing components and products?
  • Does the shelf life and operations of the organization allow for stockpiling?
  • What level of stockpiling would be appropriate? One year’s worth? Two?
  • What changes could be safely and morally instituted to ration the supply in the event new products are cut off?

Even companies not dealing in life-or-death may want to consider the possibility of losing access to Chinese rare-earth minerals. Stockpiling might not make sense for all organizations, but encouraging suppliers to push for minerals from a country more likely to be friendly during conflict would be a good move.

Changes would, of course, take years, but pressure from customers to provide US and European based rare-earth supplies would probably be more potent than commentary from the US military.

Featured image: Screenshot from Google Maps showing east Asia with China centered. 

 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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