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China’s Waning Rare Earths Advantage

Beijing won’t be able to threaten to cut off adversaries from critical supplies of the commodities for much longer.

In 1992, during a visit to Inner Mongolia, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping quipped: “The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths,” referring to 17 elements on the southern end of the periodic table that are essential to the manufacturing of everything from light bulbs to smartphones to fighter jets. China indeed has rare earth metals, oxides and permanent magnets in spades, as well as a preponderance of the world’s rare earth refining operations. As recently as 2010, an estimated 97 percent of rare earths came from China. And Deng, who made rare earths a central part of his plans to turn China into a high-tech powerhouse beginning in the mid-1980s, saw this as “of extremely important strategic significance,” calling explicitly for China to fully exploit this advantage. Subsequent Chinese governments in Beijing have never seemed quite sure of how to do so. But last week, the Financial Times reported that Chinese officials were investigating whether a ban on exports of certain rare earths could cripple U.S. production of F-35s and other weapons systems. A few days later, Bloomberg reported that Beijing was considering a ban on rare-earth refining technology. China’s hawkish state-owned Global Times then said something to the […]

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