A Chinese coast guard vessel patrols waters off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are the focus of a long-running territorial dispute between Japan and China that ramped up after Japan discovered rare earths in one of its Pacific exclusive economic zones. Photo: iStock/IgorSPb

Global reliance on advanced technology, ranging from major home appliances to computers to microchips to medical devices, makes the demand for rare-earth metals high and ongoing. Rare-earth metals or elements, also known as rare earths, are a group of 17 chemically similar elements crucial to the manufacture of many hi-tech products.

Uses for rare earth

Despite their name, most rare earths are abundant but are hazardous and difficult to extract. As the global focus shifts to green energy and clean technology, the importance of rare earths increases. For example, electric cars and wind turbines require super magnets which, in turn, require rare earths. They are also essential in high-tech manufacturing. The current world market for rare earths is several billion dollars a year. The market is volatile, complex and dominated by China, where not all mines and exports are legal and transparent.

In the mid-1990s, China consolidated its control over the global rare-earth market. The last U.S. mine and processing plant for rare earths closed in 2002 because it was unprofitable. Utilising its virtual monopoly, China began imposing export quotas in 2006, and during a diplomatic spat over the Senkaku Islands in 2010, China began limiting exports to Japan, a major user of rare earths for high-tech goods. Japan subsequently signed bilateral deals with several countries to ensure supplies. Japan also had to lower the amount of rare earths used in batteries and motors.

However, on April 11, it was reported that Japan had discovered enough rare-earth deposits to meet global demand for centuries near Minamitori Island, a remote Pacific island some 2,000 kms southeast of Tokyo and part of Japan’s exclusive economic zones. But extraction will be costly.

Rare earths found in Japanese economic zone

The scarcity of low-cost rare-earths is pushing Japan to do research aimed at getting more control over next-generation technologies and weapon systems. The U.S. Department of Energy and the EU have warned about shortages of rare earths as China’s own consumption increases. A scientific study by Chinese scholars predicts that China’s production of rare earths will peak in 2040, after which production will decline. And there are instances of China misusing its monopoly over rare earths, as it did in 2010.

The discovery of rare earths near Minamitori Island caused anxiety in China about sharing or losing control over the strategic asset.

The discovery of rare earths near Minamitori Island (also known as Marcus Island) caused anxiety in China about sharing or losing control over the strategic asset. On April 15, it was reported by Japanese media that Chinese research vessels entered Japanese EEZs numerous times to seek rare earths, on the pretext of conducting marine scientific research.

The report further pointed out that even though the Chinese vessels entered the EEZs, the actual objectives were never outlined, although China has done studies since 2007 on Japanese economic zones.

In January, four Chinese coast guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. This incursion was the first of its kind in 2018, and according to the Japanese coast guard, the Chinese vessels appeared to be equipped with what appeared to be machine guns.

China’s previous incursions into Japan’s territorial waters were based on its territorial claims. This time, however, China appears determined to ensure continued Japanese dependence on China for rare earths. What is needed is the development of alternative sources of rare earths outside of China, along with rebuilding the global supply chain. Total global reserves of rare earth metals are estimated to be about 100 million tons.

Two countries possess most of the rare-earth mineral deposits. The U.S. has 13% of total reserves, while China has about 36%. The other countries with substantial reserves are Australia, India, the Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly the Soviet Union), Brazil, Malaysia, and Malawi. Japan’s discovery adds another source.

Until 1948, most of the world’s rare-earths supplies came from sand deposits in India and Brazil. South Africa became the primary source in the 1950s. Due to extraction difficulties, however, mining of rare earths in India is not commercially viable.

China alone will not be able to sustain the global supply in the near future. In addition, given the power a monopoly over a strategic commodity like rare earths gives to China, coupled with increasing Chinese aggression on the international stage, it is imperative that a sustainable supply is developed soon.

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Sriparna Pathak

Dr Sriparna Pathak is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Nowgong College, Assam. Prior to this, she was an assistant professor at the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University. She is also a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum, Brussels. Previously she was a consultant in the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. She received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has spent two...

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