WASHINGTON – The US Defense Department said on Monday that it was concerned about China’s control over the market for rare earth metals, which are used by the defense and technology industries.
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said in a press conference that the Pentagon was worried about the defense industry’s supply chain being at risk due to the control that a rival power exerts over vital resources.
Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the US government was working on a series of measures to guarantee access to rare earths without having to go through China.
China is a quasi-monopoly supplier of rare earth elements, which are used to make high-tech products and sophisticated weapons.
Lord said one option would be to boost the rare earths processing capacity of Australia, a close US ally, adding that China’s edge in this area was due to its processing capacity.
The Pentagon official said China often imported rare earth minerals from other countries and processed them at domestic facilities.
China accounts for about 80 percent of the rare earth elements imported by the United States.
The 17 rare earth elements are also used in wind turbines, solar panels and the batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles.
The strategic minerals are an issue in the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing, with the Chinese government threatening to cut off the supply of rare earths.
China, according to US government figures, has 36.7 percent of the world’s total rare earths reserves, which are estimated at some 120 million tons.
In 2018, China accounted for 70.6 percent of global rare earths production.
Other countries, including India, Brazil and the United States, have not developed their large reserves of the metals due to concerns over the environmental impact of production on soil or because of lack of technology.
The Chinese government has tight controls on the mining industry, prohibiting foreign companies from engaging in the prospecting and extraction of tungsten, tin, fluorite, radioactive minerals and rare-earth minerals.