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Opinion: China controls rare minerals America needs for the future

John Adams

Americans won’t soon forget the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nation saw firsthand the pitfalls that come from being overly reliant on imports from a strategic competitor like China. As the coronavirus swept the world, supplies of lifesaving drugs and medical devices were suddenly cut off. In response, Congress is now exploring ways to bring critical supply chains back home. Regardless of who wins the election in November, reshoring U.S. industry and reducing our over-reliance on imports must be a priority.

China has already become the world’s dominant supplier for many critical resources, Adams writes.

Arguably one of the most troubling areas of America’s growing dependence on imports is the metals and minerals needed to manufacture 21st century technologies. The key industries expected to lead global innovation — everything from robotics and 5G networks to solar panels and electric vehicles — will require a wide array of minerals and rare earth metals. However, China has already become the world’s dominant supplier for many of these critical resources.

Alarm bells are ringing in Washington. Last month, House Republicans in the China Task Force (CTF) issued a report calling China’s expanding geopolitical strength the “greatest national and economic security challenge of this generation.” One of the CTF’s chief concerns is supply chain vulnerability — particularly the minerals that serve as the foundation for everything from defense equipment to lithium-ion batteries and renewable energy systems. 

Demand for these metals and minerals is poised to soar. It’s projected that the demand for key minerals needed just for electric vehicles could jump by 1,000% in the coming decades. The economic and national security ramifications would be catastrophic if the U.S. doesn’t prioritize reinvigorating both domestic production and the reliability of the supply chains on which our manufacturing depends. 

China now supplies 80% of the rare earth metals used in the United States, partly because it follows lower environmental protection standards than the United States and other advanced countries. Beijing is also expanding its stunning lead in the lithium-ion battery industry. China has increased the number of planned battery mega-factories to 107, with 53 now active and in production. In contrast, the U.S. has only nine battery mega-factories in the pipeline. The future of America’s auto industry — and the millions of jobs it supports — hangs in the balance. 

Overall, the United States has become import-reliant for nearly 50 minerals and metals, including 18 for which our nation is completely dependent on overseas producers. China is undoubtedly pleased to have gained such a chokehold on the U.S. in this critical sector. It’s the result of Beijing’s long-term strategy to heavily subsidize key industries in order to exert global dominance.

China’s prioritization of mining and minerals is only half of the equation. That’s because the United States was once the world’s largest producer of rare earth metals — since our nation is blessed with vast mineral resources. However, adversarial mining policy has meant that investment and production has steadily drifted elsewhere. 

China clearly wants to tighten the noose on our minerals dependency. In fact, only two weeks before our national election, China just established new laws set for Dec. 1 that will limit sensitive exports. This means no matter the U.S. election outcome, tensions will rise over access to strategic minerals. These laws signal that Beijing could use its dominance in rare earths and other critical minerals as leverage against Washington, threatening to limit exports to the U.S. on security grounds.

None of this bodes well for America’s future security. Rectifying our massive import dependence should be a bipartisan concern, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. Getting America’s mining industry back in business must become a top priority. 

Unless Congress and the president take steps to ensure that the United States becomes more self-sufficient in critical minerals, all of the nation’s shared goals — including infrastructure investment, high-speed communications, clean energy deployment and secure defense supply chains — will be impossible to achieve.

John Adams, U.S. Army brigadier general (retired), is president of Guardian Six Consulting and a former deputy U.S. military representative to NATO’s Military Committee. He is a national security adviser and writer on national security and defense issues, and was the lead author for the 2013 study on the U.S. defense industrial base, “Remaking American Security.”