China gears up to use rare-earth advantage

By Shen Weiduo Source:Global Times Published: 2019/6/9 21:28:40

US may feel price hike, shortage of minerals with coming policies: analysts

Mining of rare earths in China. File photo: VCG

A series of policies, including environmental enforcement and stricter export management aiming to regulate and upgrade the country's rare-earth industry, are expected to be rolled out soon, industry insiders said on Sunday, as China's top economic planner made a rare move by holding three meetings to solicit opinions from rare-earth industry regulators and businesses within just two days.

The move, which comes amid an escalating China-US trade war, was interpreted by many industry insiders as a sign of the country's determination to take full advantage of its "rare-earth card" to counter the US, which relies on China for its supply of the strategic resources. These policies might lead to a rare-earth price hike and also will regulate the nation's rare-earth supply. 

On June 4 and 5, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) convened three meetings respectively with enterprises, regulators and experts in the rare-earth industry to give further clues on how to promote the high-quality development of the industry.

Industry representatives during the meetings urged further crackdowns on illegal mining and production, strengthened export management, establishment of a traceability and review mechanism for rare-earth exports, reducing the illegal industrial chain and improved protection of domestic rare-earth enterprises' intellectual property rights, according to statements posted on the official website of the NDRC.

The NDRC also vowed in the statements that it will ramp up efforts to release more effective measures soon to strengthen regulation and "to make full use of the special value of rare earths as a strategic resource."

"All these measures might point to the possibility of a drop in domestic rare-earth supply and a continuing rise in the minerals' price," Wu Chenhui, an independent rare-earth analyst in Beijing, told the Global Times on Sunday, adding that China has the ability and will ensure the legitimate demand of countries around the world while it could target any country that "uses products made of China's rare-earth exports to contain China's development."

China indicated on May 28 that it may weaponize its rare earths in an escalation of trade war with the US.

China dominates the global rare-earth industrial chain and accounts for 80 percent of US imports of rare earths, according to US Geological Survey data. The minerals are important for many modern technologies and the US military. So far they have also been excluded from the list of Chinese products on which the US has threatened to impose tariffs.

Due to China's pursuit of a greener country and its determination to reduce illegal mining, many rare-earth mining activities have been halted in recent years, and domestic supply has already dropped recently, local enterprises told the Global Times during a recent visit to Ganzhou, East China's Jiangxi Province.

Ganzhou has incomparable and irreplaceable rare-earth resources, with its heavy rare earths accounting for 80 percent of the country's total storage. "Heavy rare earths are very scarce in the US and are critical to military equipment such as night vision," Wu said.

Considering the irreplaceability of heavy rare earths in the defense industry and high-tech fields, China should protect and strengthen export control of the strategic resources to fulfill domestic demand first, experts said.

In face of a possible squeeze on rare earths, the US Department of Defense has held talks with rare-earth miners across the globe about their supplies of strategic minerals, part of a plan to find diversified reserves outside China, according to a report from the South China Morning Post on June 6, citing a department official.

However, industry insiders cautioned that the move might not become effective soon - at least not before trade tensions between China and the US could be eased, as it will take years for the US to rebuild its rare-earth industry and increase its domestic supply to reduce its dependence on China's minerals. "The truth is, in the next few years, most of the rare earths will still be from China," Wu said.

Wu predicted that the country will also likely strengthen technological support to countries and regions along the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative in the rare-earth mining and processing industry.


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