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Whether China plays ‘rare-earth card’, there will be no winner in China-US decoupling

Rare earths are unloaded at a port in Southwest China’s Chongqing on May 9 Photo: IC

The Financial Times published an article on Tuesday entitled, “China targets rare earth export curbs to hobble US defence industry,” assessing how much impact it will have on US military manufactures if China cuts its supply of rare earths.

The report noted, “Fighter jets such as the F-35, a Lockheed Martin aircraft, rely heavily on rare earths for critical components such as electrical power systems and magnets. A Congressional Research Service report said that each F-35 required 417kg of rare-earth materials.” Last year, the full-rate of production of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 was put on indefinite hold, and some Russian media speculated that it was related to China’s sanctions toward the company.

Whether China will utilize rare earths as a weapon and how will China use the weapon are old topics. Relevant assessments must have been conducted in China. China is the largest producer and exporter of rare earths, and the US is obviously heavily relying on Chinese rare-earth products. If China does cut supply of the rare earths to the US, the move will undoubtedly cause disturbance and troubles to the latter. Yet on the other hand, China does not have absolute monopoly on rare-earth exports. The possible impact of limiting the export of rare earths is uncertain, and may not be as strong as some people think.

On January 15, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology started to solicit public opinion on a set of draft rules to further strengthen regulations over the rare-earth industry. In my opinion, the goal is aimed at standardizing the order of the industry, strengthening the strategic protections, and setting guidelines for rational use of rare-earth resources. This is also a prerequisite to strike back when necessary at foreign companies which harm China’s national interests.

The Financial Times’ report has hyped the confrontational atmosphere between China and the US, which is welcomed by some Western media outlets. I believe that China and the US have not yet come to a full-scale confrontation which requires China to launch a “rare-earth war” against the US regardless of its efficiency. No matter how much lethality the “rare-earth card” can pose, the power is in China’s hands. I wish it could always be a reserve force without being comprehensively activated to crack down on our opponents as much as possible regardless of the cost.

In China-US ties, cooperation benefits both, and confrontation serves neither. This is not empty talk. Former US president Donald Trump’s administration once frantically sought to decouple with China. Evidently, it failed to contain China’s technological development. Worse, the US side had paid a considerable price. It is hoped that the Joe Biden administration can return to rationality, and stop pushing the two countries toward decoupling. The US won’t be able to coordinate with its allies such as Germany to gang up against China. The economic prosperity of those countries will hardly last without cooperating with China. If the US insists on going its own way, it will end up becoming a lonely new cold war worrier. And if China is severely hurt, its powerful revenge will be inevitable.

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