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Senkaku revisited

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

by Greg Klein | May 29, 2019

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

 

They’re vital to several categories of modern essentials including military defence. But rare earths have themselves become weapons in an escalating conflict between China and the U.S. Despite Washington’s heightened awareness of its critical minerals conundrum, the U.S., like the rest of the non-Chinese world, remains almost completely dependent on its rival-turned-enemy for the rare earths that China threatens to cut off.

Among recent hints, comments and implied threats was last week’s well-publicized visit to a Chinese RE plant by President Xi Jinping and his top trade negotiator, where the leader reportedly steeled his country’s resolve with talk of an impending “Long March.” Additionally significant and non-cryptic code came in a May 29 admonition from the state-run People’s Daily: “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

Northern Minerals’ Browns Range pilot plant readies
a Western Australia project for Chinese customers.

If a full-blown trade war’s imminent, it’s not without irony. In a change of plans the U.S. has dropped rare earths from a long list of tariff-attached imports, tacitly acknowledging its dependency on China. China did the opposite, increasing its tariff from 10% to 25% on RE imports from America, a small portion of China’s supply but nevertheless an increase to the cost of its trade war weaponry.

The 17 elements comprise essential components for a host of modern necessities including phones, computers and other communications and electronic devices, electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and military defence.

China already mines over 70% of global supply, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and that doesn’t include illegal Chinese production. The U.S. relies on China for 80% of RE compounds and metals. America imports another 11% from Estonia, France and Japan, but that stuff’s “derived from mineral concentrates and chemical intermediates produced in China and elsewhere,” the USGS added.

The risks of an all-out trade war might be demonstrated by the 2010 East China Sea conflict, where China and Japan both claim the islands of Senkaku. When a Chinese fishing boat captain felt emboldened to twice ram a Japanese naval vessel, Japan arrested him. Within days, China banned all rare earths exports to Japan, crippling its globally important but RE-dependent manufacturers. China also imposed heavy cutbacks and duties on exports to other countries.

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

A Greenland Minerals MOU would commit the
proposed Kvanefjeld mine’s total RE production to China.

Desperate for RE supply, some non-Chinese manufacturers relocated to China. Meanwhile Western resource companies strove to develop alternative supplies. By 2013 two new mines reached production, Lynas Corp’s Mount Weld in Western Australia and Molycorp’s Mountain Pass in California. The following year the World Trade Organization ordered China to drop its export restrictions on rare earths, as well as tungsten and molybdenum.

China complied with a vengeance, flooding the world with cheap RE supply. America’s WTO victory proved Pyrrhic as a burgeoning non-Chinese supply chain failed to compete. The most salient casualty was Mountain Pass, which suspended operations during 2015 bankruptcy proceedings.

The mine resumed production in early 2018 under new owner MP Materials. But with China’s Shenghe Rare Earth Company a minority shareholder, North America’s only RE producer exports its entire output to China.

Lynas, meanwhile, remains committed to serving non-Chinese markets through a non-Chinese supply chain. But skeptics might consider the company’s strategy precarious. Plans announced last week include a refinery in Texas that’s merely at the MOU stage, an AU$500-million financing commitment that appears inadequate to the company’s needs and an unconvincing proposal to meet a Malaysian ultimatum with alternative ideas.

Home to Lynas’ refining and separation facility, Malaysia insists the company remove over 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste by September or face a shutdown. The country also wants future Mount Weld material rendered non-radioactive prior to arrival. (Update: On May 30 Malaysia’s prime minister said the government will likely allow Lynas’ plant to continue operation, according to Reuters.)

China-U.S. trade tactics highlight rare earths peril and potential

At a northern Quebec rare earths deposit, Commerce
Resources’ Ashram project moves towards pre-feasibility.

An AU$1.5-billion takeover bid from deep-pocketed giant Wesfarmers might offer a made-in-Australia solution. But Lynas has so far held itself aloof.

The CEO’s commitment to non-Chinese markets, however, differs from some other Australian companies. ASX-listed Northern Minerals, self-described as “the first and only meaningful producer of dysprosium outside of China,” has committed the total production of its Western Australia Browns Range project to China, apparently at the behest of minority shareholder Huatai Mining. Last August ASX-listed Greenland Minerals signed an offtake MOU with majority shareholder Shenghe Resources, which would give China the proposed Kvanefjeld mine’s total RE production.

Technology metals expert Jack Lifton emphasizes the need for non-Chinese resources and expertise: “If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck,” he told ResourceClips.com.

Heightened awareness in Washington led to 35 minerals getting a formal “critical” classification, a prelude to last year’s Secretary of Defense study calling for government initiatives to encourage domestic supply chains. More recently, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed legislation to prod the country into action.

That approach rankles those who prefer laissez-faire solutions. Moreover government meddling in the form of trade wars can backfire, libertarians believe. As Rick Rule said last week, “If the Chinese decided to obviate their competitive advantage with some stupid political ploy, they would find themselves with a much smaller proportion of the global market.”

Many investors seem to have agreed. Following China’s May 29 rhetoric, stock prices surged for advanced-stage RE projects.


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