Why Trump’s Bid to Boost Rare Earths Mining Is Misguided

Why Trump’s Bid to Boost Rare Earths Mining Is Misguided
Workers dig at a rare earth mine in Ganxian county in central China, Dec. 30, 2010 (Chinatopix photo via AP Images).

Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, WPR contributor Lavender Au and Newsletter and Engagement Editor Benjamin Wilhelm curate the week’s top news and expert analysis on China.

The world is in little danger of running out of rare earth minerals, despite their name. They are neither hard to find, nor difficult to mine. But they are in demand, since they are used in components of popular high-tech devices like smartphones, as well as electric cars, wind turbines and even military hardware. Although researchers found a huge trove of rare earth metals in Japanese waters two years ago—enough to supply the world on a “semi-infinite basis,” they said—China currently produces around 85 percent of rare earth oxides and 90 percent of rare earth metals, alloys and magnets. Most of the world’s separation facilities that process these elements and produce rare earth concentrates are also in China.

For years, this has made some in Washington uncomfortable, with growing calls to safeguard U.S. national security by bringing this supply chain home. Last week, the Trump administration issued an executive order declaring a national emergency to expand the U.S. mining industry, accelerating “the reopening and expansion of our mines and processing plants” to “reduce dependence on China for critical minerals.” The U.S. was the market leader in rare earth minerals in the 1990s, but environmental damage prompted the closure of many mines.

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