Future Wars: Rare Earth Elements

Everyone from science fiction writers to military officials have planned on what future conflicts would be, looking at factors ranging from population shifts to dwindling resources. In the first in a series of articles, this will look at the potential for conflict revolving around Rare Earth Elements.

Yttrium, one of the Rare Earth Elements

To begin, Rare Earth Elements, or REE’s, are a series of metallic elements in the Periodic Table, as well as scandium and yttrium. Despite being called “Rare,” REE’s can be found plentifully throughout the Earth’s crust, but extracting, refining, and procesing them is what requires a large amount of effort and investment. REE’s are extremely important in the development of electronics, such as computers, cellphones, DVD’s and even weapons. Their use is widespread in countries’ militaries, being utilized in lasers, communication systems, guided munitions, satellites, night vision, and avionics.

As can be imagined, REE’s are a vital component of both luxury items and security technology that make modern life possible. It only stands to reason that some would be worried about the potential effects there could be if something were to happen to the worldwide REE supply, or a crisis resulting in potentially a trade war, if not a shooting war.

A few years ago, experts in the United States were concerned because the People’s Republic of China produced 97% of the world’s REE supply. Initially, most REE’s were produced in the U.S., but the high costs caused mining companies to lower, if not cease production. By 2009, the PRC was able to use cheap labor and relaxed environmental regulations to very quickly fill the void in REE production left by the U.S.

Japanese Coast Guard
Vessels of the Japanese Coast Guard

During a 2010 dispute when Japanese coast guard vessels detained the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler, the PRC ceased shipments of REE’s to Japan, who immediately released the captain. While much of Japan’s economy is based around the development of technological devices, the move was seen as an example of the newfound power that could be wielded through the control of REE’s. The U.S. Congress even held a special hearing entitled “China’s monopoly on rare earth’s: Implications for U.S. foreign and security policy.”

While this was seen as an example of the new kinds of trade wars that could occur over extremely important REE’s and a shifting balance of power in favor of the PRC, the fact is that there really was not much need for concern in the first place. The government of the PRC may have placed a ban on REE’s to Japan, but corporations in the PRC often act very differently from what the government says. Chinese corporations continued to sell REE’s to Japan through legal loopholes and criminal assistance, and even today the PRC has not cracked down on the illegal sale of REE’s, with up to 30,000 tons of REE’s being sold illegally every year.

There is also how very small amounts of REE’s are needed to make something such as a cellphones, and the effects of a REE embargo would have taken awhile to be felt due to the large amounts of REE still being exported. And aside from releasing the Chinese captain, Japan did not fall back on any of its territorial claims, which means that the entire “crisis” between the PRC and Japan over REE’s accomplished nothing.

Rare Earth ElementSince the event, other processing centers and REE mines have emerged in the U.S., Japan, and Australia, with investments on REE mines in South Africa, Canada, Kazakhstan and Malaysia. In a report by Steve Dobransky entitled “Rare Earth Elements and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Critical Ascension of REEs in Global Politics and U.S. National Security” that was released in 2013, Dobransky argued that it was important for the U.S. to attain self-sufficiency with REE’s and that the PRC’s monopoly on REE’s should be broken as soon as possible. This process has already begun, and in 2014 the PRC was producing a decreased amount of 70% of the world’s REE supply.

Present concerns about conflicts arising over REE’s have lessened in recent years, although the most significant effect of the PRC-Japan crisis involving REE’s was its similarities to the 1973 oil embargo, where a few countries with a hold over important resources was able to shift the entire global markets.

This is the first article in a miniseries that will look at how potential wars in the future could arise, with such causes ranging from REE’s to oil to water. If you enjoyed this article then stay tuned for more, and thanks for reading.


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