How to view China’s recent threat to limit domestic production of rare earths, those 16 elements that make our cellphones and smart bombs work?
It’s the latest move in a game that began before the United States realized it was even playing, that has grown more complex than U.S. leaders realize, and that is nearing a very unfortunate ending.
The game began in earnest in 1980, when the United States made two moves that gave its opponent an advantage it has never relinquished.
One was industrial: Molycorp, then the country’s largest rare earth mining and processing company, began transferring its processing technology to China (as detailed by Boston University professor Julie Michelle Klinger in Rare Earth Frontiers).
The other was regulatory: although rare earths are most easily and cheaply obtained as a byproduct of mining for other minerals, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1980 more or less inadvertently placed this activity under the same regulations as mining nuclear fuel.
Within a decade and a half, all U.S. producers of heavy rare earths shut down.
Today, China gets most of its rare earths as a no-cost byproduct of iron ore mining, while the U.S. runs one expensive, low-value specialty mine: the Mountain Pass operation in California.