China Could Use Mineral Supply As Trade Secret Weapon

Mineral
An artisanal miner carries raw ore at Tilwizembe outside of Kolwezi (Photo: REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo)

The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the factory the manufactures magnets out of rare earth minerals attracted the attention of the international media, escalating concern of critics that the elements might be weaponized as the trade war continues.

Many believe that the Asian country could use the minerals, essential to global manufacturing and a sector that China dominates, to strike back at the Trump administration after he raised tariffs on Chinese goods and the ban of Chinese firm Huawei from purchasing tech supplies from United States firms. The Chinese president, however, did not threaten to block the supply of the minerals to the United States.

The rare earth minerals are also called the "vitamins of chemistry" since a small amount of the minerals produces powerful effects. A small amount of cerium could brighten a TV screen, expand battery life, and make magnets stronger. Global production of tech will fail if China suddenly blocks access to these materials.

However, some experts are less concerned about the effects of the blockage of the minerals. Experts believe that the United States and the rest of the world will adapt in time. According to Tim Worstall, a former trade and commodities blogger commented that if China cuts of supply entirely then there are short term solvable problems.

China owns a significant deposit of the rare earth minerals, a group of 17 elements, but it is also present in many countries including Brazil, Canada, Australia, India, and the United States. The mining of the minerals is difficult because they are mostly found in concentrated lumps. The minerals are chemically sociable elements that can bind with other compounds and minerals. The process of extracting rare-earths from common earth is lengthy and harrowing.

Eugene Gholz, a rare earth expert and associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, said that once you take it out of the ground, the big challenge is chemistry, not mining, converting the rare earth from rock to separated elements.

The impact if the blockage is still not clear. It is, however, certain that it could affect China's trading partners, including Japan and South Korea. Gary Liu, a Shanghai-based economist, said that limits on rare earth would affect many countries.

It is also unclear that China will use the minerals as a weapon. A Chinese spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry advised reporters on Wednesday not to read too much on the visit of the president to the magnet factory.

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