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China prepares rare earth trick to upset the Pentagon

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Beijing is studying the possibility of limiting the export of rare earth to the US to harm Pentagon contractors. 

The damage from this trick will be hard to underestimate, as these chemicals are crucial to the making of F-35s and other weaponry.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in January proposed a legislative project that envisages stricter control over the production and export of rare earths comprising 17 chemical elements. Today, Beijing controls almost 80% of the world’s supply of this raw material.

“The government wants to know if the US may have trouble making F-35 fighter jets if China imposes an export ban,” a government adviser close to the consultations told Financial Times, preferring to remain anonymous.

Currently, the production of F-35 fighters is highly dependent on the supply of rare earths. They are used to manufacture critical components of this aircraft, including power supply systems and magnets. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, each F-35 requires 417 kilograms of these materials.

In addition, these minerals are essential in the manufacture of products such as smartphones, electric vehicles and wind turbines. Beijing seeks to understand how quickly the US is able to get alternative sources and increase its own production capacity for these raw materials, the Financial Times interlocutors added.

In 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that it would sanction US aircraft manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon for selling their weapons to Taiwan.

Despite the possibility of causing serious damage to the US defense, establishing a tighter control regime on rare earth exports is a dubious trick, some Chinese analysts and officials warn. They argue that this move could push China’s rivals to accelerate their own production capabilities, undermining their dominance in this industry.

“Export control is a double-edged sword that must be applied very carefully,” warned Zhang Rui, an analyst at Chinese government-backed consultancy Antaike in Beijing.

The Pentagon is increasingly concerned about the US’s dependence on China for the supply of rare earths that are used in the production of all kinds of high-tech products, from guided missiles to unmanned aircraft.

Ellen Lord, the chief procurement officer for the US military, declared in October 2020 that the US needed to accumulate reserves of certain rare earths and restore the national processing of these minerals.

In recent months, the Pentagon has signed contracts with American and Australian miners seeking to increase their capacity to refine these chemicals and reduce their dependence on Chinese suppliers.

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