By Tom Ashbrook, from On Point Radio, WBUR Boston, October 4, 2010
It’s called “rare earth” – rare earth elements with astonishing and obscure qualities that are essential to everything from cell phones and hybrid cars, to wind turbines and guided missiles.
But the catch is that China has quietly cornered the market on 97 percent of rare earth. Basically all of it. That’s power. It’s an incredible story, with bracing implications.
Anyone listening to the "experts" on yesterday's show could not help but be mesmerized by the story about these fine elements, minerals, and both their uses and their sources.
Guided missiles need "rare earth" elements for their guidance systems; cell phones and bybrid cars also need tiny quantities. And yet, there is clear evidence that the U.S. Pentagon, so apparently dependent on them, does not know the "supply chain" of their origins and their middlemen except that China, where environmental issues are less important, is in possession of well over one half of the world's known supply.
In order to access these elements, huge amounts of earth have to be moved, and while there used to be some mining of them in the U.S., the factory that processed them in Iowa, according to Ashbrook, is now a doggy daycare centre. And apparently re-cycling is very expensive so not a real option for the west's supply.
As I listened, I kept wondering just how long China would continue to supply rare earth to the west for their (our) military purposes, and for their (our) high tech creations like cell phones and hybrid cars. And I also thought, as anyone listening must have been doing, just what hapens if and when China stops supplying the stuff to other countries.
When asked about the environmental damage of mining rare earth, one geologist commented that the stuff gets into the rivers flowing from the mines themselves and, "No, I would not like to drink the water from those rivers."
There are apparently some sources in South America that might prove accessible to the western markets, and these will be explored but for the foreseeable future, China seems to hold the key to access.
Just think, the Chinese have made a strategic decision not to build armies to fight the west, but rather to grow their technological capabilities, and now we learn that they are sitting on a mother lode of rare earth, the secret sine qua non of those very technological creations....and America still thinks it has a geopolitical advantage?
Hard power is being trumped by "intelligence" every day, and this example is one of the most clear and potentially dangerous. Perhaps it might be wise for the west to re-consider our "superiority" and our historic "hegemony" in the light of all the emerging economic, military and technological evidence.
Posted by "j" on On Point website, 9:47 a.m., October 4, 2010
The western media hasn’t covered the whole story. For the past two decades, when the rare earth metals were extremely cheap, countries like Japan have explored China’s rare earth. They imported in great quantities, as much as they could be mined in China, shipped to Japan, without being processed and go directly to landfills. They were creating their own rare earth reserve for their own future. That’s when China didn’t have rare earth metals policies, and didn’t enforce any rules.