Rare earth minerals new front in China-US tariff dispute

World Today

FILE PHOTO: Molten rare earth metal Lanthanum is poured into a mold at Jinyuan Company’s smelting workshop near the town of Damao in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, October 31, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

The tariff war between China and the United States is affecting products big and small.

One export category with a potentially huge impact is rare earth elements.

CGTN’s Gerald Tan examines the metals that have grown in significance in a world of high-tech devices.

Rare earth minerals are described as the vitamins of industry – they produce powerful effects in tiny doses. But exactly what are they?

The rare earths are 17 distinct elements found mostly clustered at the bottom of the periodic table.

The metals have potent luminescent and magnetic qualities. Essentially, they make screens brighter, magnets stronger and batteries last longer.

This is why they’re used in motors and lasers. Today, rare earths have become indispensable to everything from electronics and smartphones, to aircraft engines and x-ray machines.

Yet their name is slightly misleading: rare earth minerals aren’t all that rare. Significant deposits exist in China, Australia, India, Vietnam and Brazil, among others.

But there’s a catch. They’re often not found in concentrated ores; instead, they bond with other compounds and minerals. Extracting and refining these metals is a long, difficult and toxic process. Still, a little goes a long way.

Last year, the entire global output of rare earths was 170,000 tons. That amount could fit on a single container ship.

China alone produced 120,000 tons – accounting for 70-percent of total supply.

Wang Changlin of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission explains, “China’s rare earths are superior in quality, large in quantity and have low cost. Therefore, a lot of countries, especially developed countries, depend heavily on Chinese rare earth imports.”

And it is this very dependence that pushes rare earths to the forefront of the ongoing trade dispute between China and the United States – tiny matter that matters a lot.