Roughly 80% of rare earth metals go into high-temperature superalloys, especially those used to manufacture the turbine blades for commercial and military aircraft jet engines. Credit: Handout.

China moved to tighten control over the rare-earth metals industry in what some experts see as its latest response to the ongoing trade war with the US.

The proposed regulations, which include everything from mining to exports, was announced by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last week, The Global Times reported.

An industry watchdog released a draft rare-earth management rule on Friday, which covers quota management of domestic rare-earth production, investment management and supervision.

Analysts said it is likely a sign that China is determined to standardize management of the rare-earth industry, promote high-quality development and tighten control over strategic resources.

The draft includes 29 articles, clarifying the total quota control over rare-earth mining, smelting and separation, and the approval system for investment projects of rare earths, Global Times reported.

It also emphasizes the strengthening of the management of the whole industrial chain and supervision, according to MIIT.

A new Chinese law introduced in December will restrict exports of controlled items, which experts said will increase market supply volatility of some products and technologies, including rare earths, Global Times reported.

The law, passed by the country’s top legislative body in October, stipulates that China will impose restrictions or bans on exports of military and nuclear products, as well as other goods, to protect the national interest and security.

While rare earth elements are used in building consumer electronics, in healthcare and transportation, they are especially important for governments because of their use in manufacturing defense equipment, The Indian Express reported.

At present, China refines approximately 80%-90% of the world’s rare earths, thereby having substantial control over their supply.

The Pentagon, of course, has taken note and also expressed alarm that China has grasped control of most of the world’s rare earths supply.

Leaders of a recent bipartisan commission concluded the US needs to move fast, and it must work with allies and partners to compete with China in high tech, not go it alone, Breaking Defense reported.

“I went with the chairman of the seapower committee on HASC, Joe Courtney, the chairman of the Friends of Australia Caucus, to Australia,” recalled Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican co-chair of the congressionally chartered Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

In particular, they visited western Australia, a major source of rare earth minerals essential to many high-tech products – minerals that, today, the US mostly gets from China, Breaking Defense reported.

“Our biggest takeaway,” he told a CNAS webcast, “was the need to … really enhance our partnership, particularly with our Five Eyes allies” – Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the US – “and Japan” – which made major investments in its rare earths supply after China put it under embargo.

Overall, Gallagher said, Congress is taking the Chinese threat seriously and moving out but that isn’t guided by a clear strategy.

It is also apparent that China could use rare earths as leverage in the ongoing trade dispute — a position the US does not want to be in.

“I think, in our eagerness to do something about a very real challenge, the United States has leapt without a plan of action,” he said. “We’ve had some positive developments … like the American Foundries Act, the CHIPS Act, the Telecoms Act. But we need a broader strategic effort to shore up our ICT [information and communications technologies] supply chains.”

The commission studied strategic minerals from relatively common ones like silicon and germanium, to esoteric rare earths, the commission’s executive director, retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, explained.

“We used to be a leading extraction, mining and refining country, but it is a very messy process,” he said.

The high costs of both environmental protection and American labor have repeatedly scuppered attempts to revive domestic production of strategic minerals, Breaking Defense reported.

While some US mines are still in production, limited refinery capacity means that “the reality is what we mine right now already gets sent back to China,” he said.

“China has too much of an advantage  for us to compete. It would just be putting a lot of money down a hole.”

The 17 rare earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).

Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare.” One of the rare earths, promethium, is radioactive.

Aside from a Malaysian plant operated by Australia-based Lynas Corp., all rare earth separation facilities are currently located in China.

Rare earth elements (REEs) are used in a variety of industrial applications, including electronics, clean energy, aerospace, automotive and defense.

The manufacturing of magnets represents the single largest and most important end use for REEs, accounting for 21% of total consumption.

Permanent magnets are an essential component of modern electronics used in cellphones, televisions, computers, automobiles, wind turbines, jet aircraft and many other products.

REEs are also widely used in high-technology and “green” products because of their luminescent and catalytic properties.

According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the estimated size of the rare earth sector is between $10 billion and $15 billion. About 100,000-110,000 tonnes of rare earth elements are produced annually around the world.

China’s exports of rare earths have been decreasing in recent years. 

The total export of rare earths was down to 35,447.5 tons, or 23.5% year-on-year in 2020, China’s customs authority said, registering the lowest figure since 2015.

Sources: Government of Canada, MetalTech News, The Global Times, The Indian Express, Breaking Defense