Mining minerals

The fight for rare earth minerals

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart Defense Minister Wei Fenghe face-to-face for the first time during a tour of Asia next week. The Chinese government officially contacted the Pentagon on Friday to arrange the meeting. The focus will be on “competition management”, according to a US official familiar with the planning.

One aspect of the intensifying competition between China and the United States is the race for rare earth minerals. These 17 metallic minerals make up almost everything electronic, including the US military’s most important weapons like F-35 fighter jets, M1Abrams tanks, surface-to-air missiles, portable radios and everything in between. .

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee about ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a audience in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

China currently controls nearly 90% of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals, a supply chain so crucial to national security that the Department of Defense submitted its own legislative proposal to the House Armed Services Committee calling for 253, $5 million to build a bigger ore. store. If the supply chain for these minerals breaks down, planes will stop flying, tanks will shut down, and the US military may struggle to communicate.

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In a bipartisan solution, Senators Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) of the Senate Armed Services Committee came together to sponsor the REESHORE Act. This legislation would help create a larger stockpile for the U.S. military while creating more incentives to mine these minerals in the United States. Senator Kelly, a former astronaut, explained how he saw the problem firsthand from space.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (center) speaks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (not pictured) during their meeting at the Bayi Building in Beijing on June 27, 2018.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (center) speaks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (not pictured) during their meeting at the Bayi Building in Beijing on June 27, 2018.
(Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’ve flown in space over China many times, I’ve been around this planet hundreds of times. You look at China and you see what look like very strangely colored lakes. And that’s because they’re dealing with things like rare earths. It’s a very dirty process,” Kelly said, alluding to the pollution China has suffered from mining its minerals.

Senator Tom Cotton said that if China were to cut off the United States from these resources, the current Defense Department stockpile would last less than a year.

The production and extraction of these materials in the United States is very limited due to strict environmental regulations. Other supply chain issues don’t help. Given growing tensions with China over Taiwan and Ukraine, Beijing’s monopoly on rare earth minerals is an alarming national security issue.

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Drew Horn, a former US Army Green Beret, saw how important these materials were to American security while fighting overseas. Horn started a company called GreenMet with the goal of securing these minerals in the supply chain. Horn explained the problem: “It’s incredibly difficult to synchronize and bring everything together in a way that really moves the needle. Because what you’re talking about is basically creating a vertically aligned supply chain that no longer exists than in China.”

In this photo released by Chinese news agency Xinhua, a newly built aircraft carrier is transferred from drydock to water during a launching ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian, north Liaoning province. -east China), Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

In this photo released by Chinese news agency Xinhua, a newly built aircraft carrier is transferred from drydock to water during a launching ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian, north Liaoning province. -east China), Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
(AP Newsroom)

Horn believes the United States has the capability to build the technology to process these minerals in the United States, and it may even be superior to what is being done in China. “It would actually be superior to what is happening now in China because there would be regular regulatory oversight and better technology that would be forced due to the environment here,” Horn explained.

The Ronald Reagan Institute underscored its concern in a task force report released last November about the need for the United States to become more self-sufficient. “China’s push for self-reliance stands in stark contrast to America’s growing reliance on imports, including in supply chains critical to national security such as rare earth minerals and semis. -drivers,” the report said.

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Roger Zakheim, director of the institute, said: “We gave it to China. We basically gave it to China and it impacts everything from our F-35 fighter jets to the phones we we use every day in our lives.”