LONDON (Reuters) - Is China about to weaponise its global dominance of rare earths production in an escalation of the trade dispute with the United States?
President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Chinese city of Ganzhou earlier this week seemed designed to send a double message.
A stop-off at Yudu was for the domestic audience. The town was the starting point of the Long March, the 1934 retreat by Communist Party forces in their ultimately successful campaign against Chinese nationalists.
The message: things are going to get tough but we’ll win in the end.
A side-trip to a rare earths plant operated by JL MAG Rare-Earth Co, was for the United States.
The message: if you’re going to ban Huawei and impose tariffs on our goods, you might want to consider who supplies all the groovy metals that make your modern technology possible.
The point was underlined by a sharp jump in both rare earth prices and rare earth equities around the world in the wake of Xi’s high-profile excursion.
The rare earths trade weapon is already loaded.
China dominates global supply chains. The country accounted for at least 71 percent of mined output last year and a higher ratio of processed rare earth compounds, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
The United States sourced 80% of its rare earth imports from China in 2014-2017, but the USGS notes that the other three largest suppliers, Estonia, France and Japan, all derived their own production from Chinese raw materials.
The reopening of the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in California last year has done little to reduce that dependency. The mine, which the USGS estimates produced 15,000 tonnes in 2018, sends its ore to China for processing.
Moreover, that ore is now subject to a 25% tariff imposed by China in the recent tit-for-tat trade blows.
Will Xi dare pull the trigger?
China has done so before but ended up shooting itself in both feet.
A 2010 ban on the export of rare earths was presented as an internal policy decision aimed at controlling China’s notoriously free-wheeling rare earths sector.
However, the rest of the world saw it as a trade attack aimed specifically at Japan, another major rare earths user, as part of a long-simmering dispute over the status of the islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese.
The ban backfired in three ways.
Firstly, it resulted in a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against China in 2014, forcing the country to lift all export restrictions in 2015. As China talks up its multilateral trade credentials, the risk of another WTO trade case is politically problematic.
Secondly, the ban generated an extraordinary boom in rare earth prices.
The price spike actively worked against Beijing’s domestic agenda of controlling its rare earth producers by encouraging a surge in production, much of it illegal.
Prices subsequently collapsed but the unofficial production didn’t. Indeed, China is still struggling to control the sector.
This month’s ban on the import of rare earth ores from Myanmar seems in large part driven by concerns that this is black-market Chinese material being “washed” via transshipment through China’s southern neighbour.
Thirdly, China’s rare earth muscle-flexing has destroyed demand for its products.
Japanese automakers such as Honda and Toyota have re-engineered the magnets used to power their hybrid and electric vehicles to use less of the rare earths produced by China in favour of those produced in other countries such as Australia.
The end-user reaction is still rumbling on.
Audi’s just-launched E-tron SUV uses an induction rather than a magnet motor, eliminating completely the need for rare earths, although such a move only makes sense in the luxury, high-performance end of the auto market.
Three good reasons why Beijing might want to remind Donald Trump that its rare earth gun is in good working order without actually firing it.
Except something else has changed since the last rare earths war.
President Trump’s Administration is making it increasingly clear that in its ideal world it wouldn’t buy any of China’s rare earths anyway.
These esoteric elements, used in applications ranging from computer hard drives to lasers and cancer treatment, are top of the list of “critical minerals” identified by the United States as requiring investment in domestic, or at least friendly, supply chains.
Where it can, the United States is already unpicking military dependence on what it perceives to be hostile suppliers.
An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 prohibits the Department of Defense (DOD) from buying neodymium-iron-boron magnets using metal melted in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
The explicit aim, as with already controlled products such as samarium-cobalt batteries, is to “promote growth in domestic capability for these materials and reduce dependence on foreign sources as a shortage would impact many DOD applications.”
Meanwhile, the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages U.S. military inventories of critical materials, has been actively building stocks of rare earths and battery precursor compounds.
Its fiscal 2019 shopping list includes up to 415 tonnes of rare earths, 100 tonnes of rare earth magnet stock and smaller quantities of dysprosium, europium and yttrium oxide, all elements with sensitive military applications.
U.S. civilian society, however, is still highly dependent on China’s rare earths supply, which is why they were conspicuous by their absence on the latest expanded U.S. tariffs list.
The reopening of the Mountain Pass mine is one small step towards reducing that dependency. The possibility of a domestic rare earths processing facility, as announced by Australia’s Lynas Corp and Texas-based Blue Line Corp, would be a much bigger step.
From Beijing’s perspective, such developments mean that its rare earths trade gun is only going to diminish in power over time. So why not use it now when it still has maximum effect?
To do so, however, would unleash a political and market backlash similar to that in 2010, perhaps even worse.
Such is the high-stakes gamble for both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.
Who, to quote Clint Eastwood’s character in the “Dirty Harry” movie, feels lucky in this stand-off?
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Alexandra Hudson