An episode of House of Cards deals with a crisis between China and the United States as a result of China cutting off US access to Samarium, a rare earth element. Unfortunately, this situation is not very far fetched.
Rare earth elements are extremely important to the United States. They have vital applications in electronics, as they are used in the production of hard disks, smart phones, TV screens, and touch screens. Rare earth elements have also allowed electronics like headphones to become smaller, and they are critical to the energy sector. They are used in oil refineries, hybrid cars, wind turbines, nuclear control rods, energy efficient light bulbs, and solar panels. Other civilian applications include water treatment, medical imaging, and super alloys.
Rare earth elements are even more important to the military. As a result of the Pentagon’s “network-centric” warfare doctrine, the US military is highly computerized, so all of the IT applications of rare earth elements apply to the military. Thus, these elements are found in tanks, warships, fighter jets, smart munitions, missile defense systems, satellites, and communication gear. Fighting a war without rare earth elements would be like fighting without fuel or ammunition. It’s no surprise that a Congressional finding called rare earth elements “critical to national security.”
Currently, China controls 97 percent of the world’s production of rare earth elements. This gives China a massive upper hand in international disputes. In response to a maritime dispute with Japan, China cut off rare earth exports to Japanese customers and cut global export quotas, claiming that they were trying to “fight pollution.”
If China were to cut off rare earth exports to the United States in response to a trade war, military conflict, or a cold war, they would bring the United States to its knees economically and militarily. Given the fact that tensions still remain high in the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan, this is a dangerous situation for the US.
It is critical that the United States finds alternate sources of rare earth elements. These sources do exist. Although China controls the vast majority of the world’s current production, it only has 37 percent of the world’s reserves. Despite the name, rare earth elements are actually relatively abundant.
There are many rare earth element mines outside of China that were shut down after China undercut world prices in the 1990s. Surprisingly, the US was the largest producer in the 1980s.
Mines in Australia are appearing online, and mines in the US, Brazil, Vietnam, Greenland and Canada could be online by 2015. The United States government should subsidize domestic rare earth production and encourage other countries to do the same in order to end China’s monopoly.
Another source of rare earth elements is the piles of dirt and rock that were discarded during the gold rush. These mine tailings were once thought to be worthless, but could in fact be a “gold mine” of rare earth elements.
Recycling rare earth elements is also an option. Japan has already built recycling plants that extract these elements from old hybrid car batteries and electronics. This would lead to additional environmental benefit, since rare earth mining and refining creates toxic waste and emits carbon dioxide.
In the long term, it may be possible to remove rare earth elements from the equation altogether. Companies and universities are trying to develop substitute materials with nanotechnology, as well as devices that do not need rare earth elements. However, these technologies remain elusive after years of research.
As a short-term plan, the United States should create a prudent reserve of rare earth elements. to add to the other stockpiles of strategically important resources like medicine and oil. There’s even a National Raisin Reserve! Since rare earth elements are vital to the American economy and military, there is no reason why the government should not have a national emergency stockpile of them.
Many ask why the Allies won the Second World War. One of the reasons was that the Allies had far more natural resources, especially oil. The United States produced 60 percent of the world’s oil, and the remainder was largely produced by other Allied nations. Britain controlled the oil-rich Middle East, while the Soviet Union had significant oil reserves in the Caucuses.
In contrast, the Germans had a few oil wells in Romania, but they had no efficient way of processing or transporting this oil (which was made harder by Allied bombing). The Japanese captured the oil rich Dutch East Indies early in the war, but American submarines made transportation difficult.
Ultimately, Axis warships, planes, and tanks simply ran out of gas. Training had to be cut back, resulting in unskilled pilots and tank crews. Axis fleets and armies had to disengage or avoid fights altogether due to a lack of fuel.
While a major great power war is far less likely now than it was in the 1900s, the United States faces a similar problem. Rare earth elements are about as important as oil to our military and economy. In the unlikely but possible event of war with China (or even a cold war for that matter), America would find itself in a similar predicament in regard to rare earth elements that Germany and Japan faced with regard to oil. The United States cannot let such a critical resource remain in the hands of a single foreign nation, particularly a nation that could be a major competitor for world power.