China threatens to withhold export of critical minerals that help make Pentagon...

China threatens to withhold export of critical minerals that help make Pentagon weapons work

In a file photo, Capt. Brian O'Shea provides overwatch for his Marines and a team of geologists in support of Operation Centrum as they searched for rare earth elements and industrial minerals in Afghanistan (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan Rholes)

WASHINGTON — Perhaps the best missile defense system is a way to make sure your foe’s missiles never can get off the ground.

China may have the not-so-secret way to do just that — and is letting the U.S. know it.

This week China’s leaders, starting at the top with President Xi Jinping, have said they will consider pulling their exports of rare earth metals to the U.S. unless a favorable trade agreement is reached.

Depending on the source, the U.S. imports between 80 and 90 percent of its rare earth metals from China — irreplaceable minerals vital to everything from cell phones and electric cars to advanced precision weapons such as the F-35 fighters, guided missiles, alloy used in armor vehicles, and lasers used for targeting.

Pentagon officials, speaking on background, expressed concern on the longer term implications of a sudden dearth of critical materials.

They referred to a Pentagon report last year to the White House that noted how “China has strategically flooded the global market with rare earths at subsidized prices, driven out competitors, and deterred new market entrants.”

The report said the threat is real, given the offshoring of manufacturing and weaknesses in the U.S., manufacturing and defense industrial base.

The U.S. has some stockpiles of rare earth materials, mostly for the defense industry, but not sufficient quantities for a prolonged conflict — economic or militarily.

Rare earth minerals, or metals, are 17 minerals with magnetic and conductive properties that help juice most electronic devices. They are found in several countries, including the United States, but are difficult to mine safely.

China holds two advantages. Its territory contains 66-90% of the world’s rare earth deposits, depending on which study is read. However, 90% of rare earth production is there because of low labor costs and low environmental regulations, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We advise the U.S. side not to underestimate the Chinese side’s ability to safeguard its development rights and interests. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” the People’s Daily said in a commentary titled “United States, don’t underestimate China’s ability to strike back.”

Twice before the People’s Daily wrote “Don’t say we didn’t warn you” — just ahead of the 1962 border war with India and the 1979 China-Vietnam War.

The newspaper is the official organ of the Communist Party of China.

“Will rare earths become a counter weapon for China to hit back against the pressure the United States has put on for no reason at all? The answer is no mystery,” the paper said.

Even though rare earth imports are a relatively small part of the $420 billion U.S. goods deficit with China, the worth far outstrips their dollar value.

President Xi took the step of visiting a rare earth company on a recent trip to Jiangxi province, which was the opening warning in the now week long drumbeat of threats.

Beijing acted after President Donald Trump blacklisted Chinese telecom giant Huawei on national security grounds, which led to many chipmakers and internet-focused businesses to drop the telecom and seek parts elsewhere.

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