Rare-earth exports were down in March, but they slipped considerably less than most of China’s other profitable exports, dipping to 6.5 percent growth after two months of growing at nearly 11 percent.
The Global Times celebrated these export figures as proof China’s grip on the global rare-earths market remains secure, although it pointed out some obstacles that should not be taken lightly:
According to customs data, China’s rare-earth exports stood at 4,845.2 tons in March, which industry observers said represent “a relatively high level” in terms of monthly trade volume, showing that the trading of the precious metal has not been affected by geopolitical tensions and supply chain snags caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The value of first-quarter rare-earth exports in dollar-denominated terms grew 78 percent compared with the same year last year to $244.2 million as prices continued to climb. The figure compared with the 61.8-percent expansion in the January-February period.
But some industry insiders estimated that the world’s largest rare-earth exporter could see export drops in coming months, as China’s rare-earth production capacity faces obstacles. Major border gates between China and Myanmar— which accounts for about half of China’s rare-earth mineral supply – have been shut down again since the beginning of the year, posing serious challenges for the transfer of raw material supply and further price fluctuations.
Interestingly, the Global Times saw nothing to fear from other countries, including the United States and Australia, ramping up their own rare-earth mining operations to lessen China’s dominance of the market.
China is moving aggressively to consolidate its control of the market for these minerals, which are vitally needed for a variety of electronics and manufacturing applications but are especially crucial for “green” technologies.
In December 2021, Beijing blessed a merger of three huge state-owned mining enterprises to create the behemoth China Rare Earth Group, a single entity that controls 30 percent of China’s production – and China accounts for 80 percent of the global supply.
While Chinese officials claimed this merger was merely a helpful step to ensure the stability of global supply chains, international analysts saw the birth of a cartel similar to OPEC, giving China the ability to manipulate prices the way OPEC influences the global price of oil.
The Chinese Communist Party is not at all shy about using such market power for political purposes. The Center for Strategic and International Studies(CSIS) noted last April that China controls “most of the world’s capacity for key components used in lithium-ion battery manufacturing and 80 percent of global battery cell manufacturing capacity,” leverage that will prove increasingly powerful as Western nations push their economies to become more dependent upon such products.
The European Union (EU) warned around the same time that China dominates the market for at least 30 raw materials deemed crucial to European industry, making those supply chains “extremely vulnerable.” China’s own demand for rare earths is rapidly increasing, raising the possibility that Beijing will simply prioritize its own needs above other nations and dominate every industry that depends on these minerals.
Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) in January introduced a bill that would ban American defense contractors from buying rare earths from China by 2026 and establish a permanent national stockpile of the minerals.
The U.S. presently only has one rare earths mine and no domestic processing capability, but Cotton noted America was the world’s leading supplier in the 1980s and allowing China to take such a dominant position was “simply a policy choice the United States made.”
Kelly said the bill would “strengthen America’s position as a global leader in technology by reducing our country’s reliance on adversaries like China for rare earth elements.”
The Japan Times posited in February that China’s creation of the mammoth China Rare Earth Group spurred U.S. lawmakers to take more vigorous action against Beijing’s dominance of the industry.
Japan itself needs no further wake-up calls, as the Chinese blocked their supply of rare earths for several weeks in 2010 during a political dispute over the Senkaku Islands, then imposed export restrictions that dramatically increased the price of the minerals for several years thereafter. ✪