Saturday 20th October 2018

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Depending on the enemy

The U.S. calls for new supply strategies to meet economic and defence risks

by Greg Klein

The goal might be summed up by a new slogan: Make America Self-Reliant Again. Or, with a tad less concision: Let’s Stop Relying on an Economic Rival that’s a Potential Military Threat for the Stuff We Need to Compete with an Economic Rival that’s a Potential Military Threat.

A newly released study from the U.S. Secretary of Defense illustrates that absurd dilemma. The dependency runs the gamut from sourcing raw materials to refining them, manufacturing key components, developing R&D, training workers, even setting prices. As the report says, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”

The U.S. calls for new supply chain strategies to meet economic and defence risks

But Russia merits little mention in the 146-page document. China comes up again and again as the pre-eminent economic and military threat with a long-term hegemonic strategy.

That strategy’s been very successful, leaving the U.S. sorely unprepared for the resulting risks. Ordered by President Donald Trump in July 2017, the report urges a government-wide program to address the entire range of supply chain challenges.

The 2010 Senkaku incident, dramatic as it was, can be seen as a mere microcosm of a much bigger threat.

“China’s domination of the rare earth element market illustrates the potentially dangerous interaction between Chinese economic aggression guided by its strategic industrial policies and vulnerabilities and gaps in America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base,” the report warns. “China has strategically flooded the global market with rare earths at subsidized prices, driven out competitors, and deterred new market entrants. When China needs to flex its soft power muscles by embargoing rare earths, it does not hesitate, as Japan learned in a 2010 maritime dispute.”

It was a lesson learned by other countries too. The report describes rare earths as “critical elements used across many of the major weapons systems the U.S. relies on for national security, including lasers, radar, sonar, night vision systems, missile guidance, jet engines, and even alloys for armored vehicles.”

Rare earths figure prominently in the U.S. list of 35 critical minerals drafted last February and confirmed in May. American dependency was further highlighted when the country dropped rare earths from a revised list of tariffs on Chinese imports announced in September.

China’s soft power hardball has targeted other American allies as well, waging “aggressive economic warfare” against South Korea after the country installed an American air defence system. Other examples of “economic coercion” include “a ban on Philippine bananas over territorial disputes in the South China Sea; the aforementioned restriction of rare earth exports to Japan following the Senkaku Islands dispute in 2010; persistent economic intimidation against Taiwan; and the recent ceding of a Sri Lankan port.”

China can play nice too. But at a price. The country invests heavily in developing countries, often building infrastructure “in exchange for an encumbrance on their natural resources and access to their markets.”

As for Chinese electronics exports, they “lack the level of scrutiny placed on U.S. manufacturers, driving lower yields and higher rates of failures in downstream production, and raising the risk of ‘Trojan’ chips and viruses infiltrating U.S. defense systems.”

Technological expertise becomes a strategic weapon too. “As part of its industrial policy aggression, China has forced many American companies to offshore their R&D in exchange for access to the Chinese market.”

With an advanced-stage rare earths project in northern Quebec as well as advanced-stage tantalum-niobium in southern British Columbia, Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE president Chris Grove keeps tabs on Canada’s neighbour. “People in Washington tell me the anxiety level on these issues has never been higher,” he notes.

Here’s the world’s biggest military and they’re saying, ‘We need Chinese stuff to make it all work?’ That’s really for most Americans an absolutely untenable and unbelievable position of weakness.—Chris Grove,
president of Commerce Resources

“Apart from the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China, there’s the vulnerability of the U.S. military. Here’s the world’s biggest military and they’re saying, ‘We need Chinese stuff to make it all work?’ That’s really for most Americans an absolutely untenable and unbelievable position of weakness.”

Sources in Washington encouraged Grove to apply for a research grant from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. If successful, the application would bring up to $3 million to further metallurgical progress on his company’s Ashram rare earths project, advancing a potential source in a stable and allied country.

That would complement one of the report’s key recommendations, to “diversify away from complete dependency on sources of supply in politically unstable countries who may cut off U.S. access; diversification strategies may include re-engineering, expanded use of the National Defense Stockpile program, or qualification of new suppliers.”

Other recommendations include creating an industrial policy that supports national security, working with allies and partners on industrial development, expanding industrial investment, addressing manufacturing and industrial risk within the energy and nuclear sectors, encouraging home-grown scientific expertise and occupational skills, and exploring next generation technology for future threats.

In ordering the study, Trump stated the loss of key companies, over 60,000 American factories and almost five million manufacturing jobs since 2000 “threatens to undermine the capacity and capabilities of United States manufacturers to meet national defense requirements and raises concerns about the health of the manufacturing and defense industrial base.”


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