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US-China Trade War Sparks Worries about Rare Earth Minerals

Rising trade tensions between the U.S. and China have sparked worries

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Trade, Earth, Minerals
FILE - A mining machine is seen at the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals, in Inner Mongolia, China, July 16, 2011. VOA

Rising trade tensions between the U.S. and China have sparked worries about the 17 exotic-sounding rare earth minerals needed for high-tech products like robotics, drones and electric cars.

China recently raised tariffs to 25% on rare earth exports to the U.S. and has threatened to halt exports altogether after the Trump administration raised tariffs on Chinese products and blacklisted telecommunications giant Huawei.

With names like europium, scandium and ytterbium, the bulk of rare earth minerals are extracted from mines in China, where lower wages and lax environmental standards make production cheaper and easier.

But trade experts say no one should panic over China’s threats to stop exporting the elements to the U.S.

Trade, Earth, Minerals
FILE – In this April 30, 2009, photo, coral reefs grow in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. Rising demand for copper, cobalt, gold and the rare-earth elements vital in manufacturing smartphones and other high-tech products is causing a prospecting rush to the dark seafloor thousands of meters beneath the waves. VOA

There is a U.S. rare minerals mine in California. And Australia, Myanmar, Russia and India are also top producers of the somewhat obscure minerals. Vietnam and Brazil both have huge rare earth reserves.

“The sky is not falling,” said Mary B. Teagarden, a China specialist, professor and associate dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix. “There are alternatives.”

Simon Lester, associate director of the center for trade policy studies at the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, agreed. “Over the short term, it could be a big disruption, but companies that want to stay in business will find a way,” he said.

Although the U.S. is among the world’s top 10 countries for rare earths production, it’s also a major importer of the minerals, looking to China for 80% of what it buys from other countries, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China last year produced 120,000 metric tons of rare earths, while the United States produced 15,000 metric tons.

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Mountain Pass Mine

The United States also depends on China to separate the minerals pulled from Mountain Pass Mine, the sole rare earths mine in the U.S., which was bought two years ago by the Chicago-based JHL Capital Group LLC .

“We need to develop a U.S.-based supply chain so there is no possibility we can be threatened,” said Ryan S. Corbett, managing director of JHL Capital.

The mine’s top products are neodymium and praseodymium, two elements that are used together to make the lightweight magnets that help power electric cars and wind turbines and are found in electronics such as laptop hard drives.

Mountain Pass, located in San Bernardino County, Calif., was once the top supplier of the world’s rare earth minerals, but China began taking over the market in the 1990s and the U.S. mine stopped production in 2002.

Trade, Earth, Minerals
FILE – Workers are pictured at the site of the Lynas rare earth plant in Gebeng, eastern Malaysia, April 19, 2012. VOA

Mountain Pass later restarted production, only to close again amid a 2015 bankruptcy. Corbett said extraction resumed last year after JHL Capital purchased the site with QVT Financial LP of New York, which holds 30%, and Shenghe Resources Holding Co. Ltd. of China, a nonvoting shareholder with 9.9%.

Since then, Mountain Pass has focused on achieving greater autonomy with a $1.7 billion separation system set to go online late next year that would allow it to skip sending rare earths ore to China for that step.

China could hurt itself in the long run by cutting off the U.S., specialists said.

David Merriman, a rare earths analyst for Roskill commodity research in London, said that during a similar trade flap with China in 2011, Japan began looking to other countries, including Australia, for the minerals needed to manufacture electronics.

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Australian rare earths production giant Lynas Corp. Ltd. this month announced a proposed deal with Blue Line Corp. of Texas for a separation facility at an industrial site in Hondo, Texas.

Other deposits

There may be other options, too. Deposits of rare earths have been detected in other U.S. states, including Wyoming and Alaska, as well in several remote areas of Canada. The Interior Department is calling for more prospecting and mining of “critical minerals,” including on public lands currently considered off-limits, and even in oceans.

“We have to be more forward-thinking,” said Alexander Gysi, an assistant professor in geology and geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “It would be better for the U.S. to have a greater range of sources for rare earths.” (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Why Coronavirus May Have Severe Impact on Asia’s Economy

This time around Chinese tourism matters even more to Southeast Asia

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Coronavirus
The Coronavirus outbreak, which has so far caused 41 deaths in China, and caused the country to quarantine 16 cities, is causing comparisons to the 2003 spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which decreased the value of the global economy by $40 billion. VOA

Southeast Asia’s proximity to China and dependence on that nation for a major share of its economy is raising concerns that the coronavirus outbreak  that started there will not only have health impacts but harm the region’s economies.

The outbreak, which has so far caused 41 deaths in China, and caused the country to quarantine 16 cities, is causing comparisons to the 2003 spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which decreased the value of the global economy by $40 billion.

“Now that the Wuhan coronavirus has been found to be able to be transmitted from human to human, the economic consequences could be extremely concerning for the Asia-Pacific region,” Rajiv Biswas, IHS Markit Asia Pacific chief economist, said.

Sectors of the economy that are particularly vulnerable to a SARS-like virus epidemic that can be spread by human-to-human transmission are retail stores, restaurants, conferences, sporting events, tourism and commercial aviation,” he said.

Observers agree that tourism could be one of the hardest-hit industries, in part because of the millions of Chinese who usually travel now, during the Lunar New Year, and in part because China has grown so much in the last two decades that many neighboring nations depend on it for tourism.

That is only one of the economic differences between China today and the China of the SARS virus in 2003.

Coronavirus
The recent coronavirus outbreak originating from China to other countries including Singapore may impart some uncertainty to near-term business and consumer sentiments. VOA

China has since then become a member of the World Trade Organization and the second-biggest economy in the world. Its supply chain has become more integrated with the rest of the world than it has ever been, and it has become the biggest trading partner for many countries in the region.

The 2003 virus decreased China’s economic growth rate, but its effect was the same for Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, Biswas said.

This time around Chinese tourism matters even more to Southeast Asia.

After Hong Kong, nations for which Chinese visitors’ spending accounts for the biggest share of gross domestic product are, from most to least, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia, according to statistics released by Capital Economics, a London-based research company, Friday. In many of these nations, businesses catering to tourists display signs in Chinese, accept China’s yuan currency, and use that country’s WeChat for mobile payments.

Major tourism events in the region add to the threat that the virus and its economic impact will spread, such as the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Biswas said. Vietnam will also host the Vietnam Grand Prix Formula One race this year, while Malaysia will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Singapore is an island nation that depends heavily on foreign trade, including to facilitate trade and investment in China. Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at Singapore’s OCBC Bank, said Friday she was expecting Singapore’s economy to stage a modest recovery from 2019, but that may change.

Coronavirus
Southeast Asia’s proximity to China and dependence on that nation for a major share of its economy is raising concerns that the coronavirus outbreak  that started there will not only have health impacts but harm the region’s economies. VOA

She said “the recent coronavirus outbreak originating from China to other countries including Singapore may impart some uncertainty to near-term business and consumer sentiments.”

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That could mean slower growth in the first quarter of 2020, she said. (VOA)