Industry chain can help retain rare-earth primacy

By Wang Jiamei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/23 22:23:40

With the world watching closely as to whether China will use rare earths as countermeasures in the US-China trade war, news has emerged that Australian rare-earths producer Lynas Corp will cooperate with US company Blue Line Corp to set up a rare-earth separation facility in the US. 

The development comes on the heels of Chinese top leader's visit to a rare-earth magnet factory in East China's Jiangxi Province on Monday, a symbolic move that not only reminded the world of its dependence on China's rare-earth supplies but also showed support for the domestic industry.

The venture may underscore the companies' efforts to catch up with their Chinese peers to reduce reliance on Chinese supplies, which might take years. Yet, China should not relax its vigilance in maintaining its dominance in the strategically important rare-earth industry, and it needs to further enhance support to the rare-earth processing industry to maintain its industrial advantages.

Many have the impression that China has the world's largest rare-earth reserves, accompanied by the largest production and exports. Such dominance seems to have become a threat to the US economy as rare-earth elements are crucial to the manufacturing of a variety of high-technology and new-energy devices. 

Nevertheless, in recent years, countries like Australia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and even the US started producing rare earths, gradually diversifying the world's supply system. 

While China's share in the global supply of rare-earth ore is declining, it has built up considerable advantages in the extraction and refining aspects, which are more difficult than mining. 

Today, a large amount of rare-earth ore is imported into China, where it is refined and then exported as rare-earth metals or other products with higher added value. In 2018, China became the biggest importer of rare-earth elements for the first time since 1985.

In other words, after decades of development, China's rare-earth industry has accumulated considerable technological strength, giving the country a dominant position not just in rare-earth mining but also in separation, smelting and refining. 

Nevertheless, China should remain vigilant in developing its rare-earth ecosystem, which came into being at the cost of massive environmental pollution and vicious competition.

Now the US is fully aware of its rare-earth supply problem, and with action being taken, it can be expected that the industry will see fierce competition in the years to come. It is necessary for China to further increase input and enhance support to the rare-earth industry, especially in the aspect of processing.

In the end, rare earths are not that rare. It is the comprehensive processing chain that helps China shape its industrial advantages. Further technological support is needed to build the high value-added refining and processing chain to maintain the nation's industrial advantages.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.


blog comments powered by Disqus