China’s Rare Earths Monopoly is No Game — It’s a National Security Risk

The game of monopoly involves wheeling and dealing, strategy, and winners and losers. Monopoly is fun when it is a board game, but it’s frightening when the monopoly being played involves a chokehold on the market of strategic elements by rival super power China. Let’s pass “Go” and collect some knowledge about this current risk to our country’s safety.

China is the world’s predominant supplier of rare earths. And when I say “predominant,” that equates to 85% to 95% of the global demand. Yup, I’d say that’s a monopoly. Increased demand has strained the world supply with growing concern that a shortage of rare earths may occur. Guess who that puts in the driver’s seat for controlling where its supply goes? Ding, ding, ding! China, of course.

But what exactly are “rare earths?” Rare earths are a group of seventeen chemically similar elements crucial to the manufacture of many high tech products. They are essential, nonrenewable, and irreplacable materials that power most of modern technlogy and are vital to the development of military technology.

Despite their name, rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust. They are also often found in the same location. The challenge is that minable concentrations of rare earths are less common than for most other mineral commodities. They are also hazardous to extract. Federal environmental regulations make the extraction of rare earths very expensive. Accordingly, only one rare earth mine, located in Mountain Pass, CA, is operational here in the U.S.

The rare earth metals comprising the group of seventeen are lustrous, silvery-white, soft heavy metals. Each appears on the periodic table (look down at the bottom of the chart) and has a name you would not want to appear on a spelling test, such as Yttrium and Praseodymium.

The significance of rare earths cannot be overemphasized. They’re in almost everything technological in use today. Don’t believe me? Where are they? Here are some tech products and the rare earths utilized to produce them.

Loudspeakers and computer hard drives. Neodymium.

X-ray and MRI scan systems and TV screens. Gaoblinium. (A spelling word gem and tongue-twister.)

Catalytic converters. Cerium.

Camera and telescope lenses. Lanthanum.

Stong metals used in aircraft engines. Praseodymium.

Cell phones, cars, TV’s, and computers are among the indispensable products run with the strong internal magnets manufactured from rare earths. Modern medical devices and communication systems are entirely dependent on these resources.

And when it come to the military, the strategic importance of rare earth’s is massive,sometimes literally. Each F-35, for example, contains 920 pounds of rare earths. Precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, drones, and satellites are among the key defense tools that rely on rare earths. Given this dependence, the peril of having to rely on China to obtain these materials is frightening. The bottom line is that, to remain militarily competitive with the Asian superpower, the U.S. has to depend on a vulnerable supply chain. Yikes!

To add to the anxiety, consider this fact. Although the U.S. does have one operational mine and could possibly expand mining for rare earths in this country, it has no capability to process what is mined. One hundred percent of the output of the MP Materials mine in California is sent to Chinese processing plants.

So, not only does China produce the most rare earths, but it controls the refineries and processing plants which transform the raw ore. Since 1985, China has sytematically gained near complete control over the global supply chain. Because of China’s tightening of restrictions on its exports, some countries have begun stockpiling rare earths.

And China is clearly not afraid to use rare earths as a political weapon. In 2020, reports emerged that, in response to a U.S. defense deal with Taiwan, China was threatening to cut off the supply of rare earths to three U.S. defense manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, the producer of F-35’s.

The U.S. government, aware of the threat of China’s monopoly, has sought to address it. The Biden administration is pushing to reduce U.S. reliance on Chinese imports of rare earths. Efforts are being made to produce more rare earth minerals here in this country. Sen. Mark Kelly (D. Ariz.), a retired U.S. Navy pilot and prior NASA astronaut, has characterized China’s hold on the rare earth market as “a national security risk.” He is now urging the Pentagon to act quickly to eliminate rare earth metals from our country’s military weapons systems.

The U.S. has been down this road before. Middle Eastern countries, not all of them friendly to the U.S., have a grip on the oil produced in their area. Threatening to cut off, or at least reduce, the supply is a powerful weapon. Now the focus is swinging to rare earths. And China recognizes the power it holds. As Deng Xiaoping noted in 1987, “The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths.” And the U.S. has a problem.

Being dependent on any other country, much less China, for materials needed for commonly used tech products and the viability of our country’s defense system is worse than going to jail, going directly to jail while playing Monopoly. A good game strategy is required now that our precarious situation has been recognized; considered action must be taken to address it. If appropriate steps are not taken, a different board game may be what we are playing–Life–our own and the very existence of our country.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you heard of “rare earths” before? Even if you have, were you aware their use was so prevalent in tech products today? Is the U.S. too dependent on imports from China, rare earths or not? If so, what can or should be done about the situation?

One thought on “China’s Rare Earths Monopoly is No Game — It’s a National Security Risk

  1. Great article Alice. Makes a person think about where things come from.

    Blessings Kathy

    I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Phil. 4:13



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