Chinese Embargo Threats Ring Hollow—the Reason Why Lies in Rare Earths

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By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

We’ve been sold an empty threat for years. And now it’s finally happening: ahistorical bluff is getting close to being revealed for the paper tiger that it is. According to accounts in several local newspapers, China is poised to embargo shipments of rare earths to strike back against the U.S. in response to the mounting trade war between the two countries. A representative example is the People’s Daily, an official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, which recently wrote: “We advise the U.S. side not to underestimate the Chinese side’s ability to said safeguard its development rights and interests. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” The International Business Times noted that“ the phrase ‘Don’t say we didn’t warn you’ was only used two other times in history by the People’s Daily—in 1962 before China’s border war with India and preceding the 1979 China-Vietnam War.”

So are we on the verge of World War III? Certainly, Beijing’s threats sound ominous, but in this case, the warning, likeChina’s threat to sell U.S. Treasuries, is more apparent than real. As for the historical military references, it’s also worth recalling that neither the border war with India nor the conflict with Vietnam ended particularly well for Beijing in terms of decisively securing its strategic objectives when the attacks were launched. China is said to have “won” the 1962 war with India, but the disputed border issue is not fully resolved, and ultimately created a more formidable adversary when India modernized its army in response to Beijing’s attack; in Vietnam, the end was widely considered to be a military debacle for China’s People’s Liberation Army. By the same token, today’s threatened rare earths embargo may well prove to be disruptive (and expensive) for the United States in the short term. Long term, not so much, and, in fact, it may prove profoundly self-defeating for Beijing.

For starters, even today the United States can access rare earths from non-Chinese sources if and when circumstances necessitate it, including from hitherto dormant domestic producers. And from China’s perspective, given the multinational nature of supply chains, just how does the country plan to isolate the American end-user of this commodity?

The last time Beijing attempted an embargo of rare earths against Tokyo in September 2010 (allegedly in response to a trawler collision that occurred in the context of a longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, or the Diaoyu Islands in the People’s Republic of China), the suspension of Chinese shipments lasted a mere seven weeks. And even that might overstate the true duration of the embargo because, as authors Amy King and Shiro Armstrong of Australia National University point out:

Analysis of Japanese port data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance shows that there was no uniform dropin Japanese imports of Chinese rare earths following the trawler collision. Similarly, a 2012 article in The Chinese Journal of International Politicscites Japanese and US news media to demonstrate that Japanese officials and businesses had been aware since mid-August 2010 [i.e., one month beforethe trawler collision] of Chinese plans to reduce their worldwide rare earths exports.

In any case, King and Armstrong note that within several weeks, then Premier Wen Jiabao signaled an end to the embargo when he announced: “China does not and will not use rare earths as a bargaining tool in international trade because China strives for sustainable development throughout the entire world.” However much one may laud the Chinese premier’s professed environmentalist objectives for sustainable development, the more likely reason why the embargo ended so abruptly was that it ended up doing as much damage to China’s economy as it did to the Japanese companies it was designed to punish. The real lesson to be drawn from that experience is the ineffectual nature of these attempted embargos in the context of a world of multinational supply chains.

Not only did the supply cutoff undermine Beijing’s credibility (and concurrently expose the underlying weakness of its position), but the attempted weaponization of rare earths ultimately undermined China’s quasi-monopoly dominance in the sector by calling into question its reliability as a dependable long-term supplierin the global marketplace that China (and therest of the world)depends on for every advanced sector of its economy. It also induced sourcing from other countries in response. Consider that in 2011, China controlled around 97 percent of the global rare earths market.Today, that figure is closer to 80 percent. In the mineral industry, a decline rate like that is warp speed. Within the next three years, it will be smaller still, as more American production comes into play.

What are rare earths? According to, they are a group of 17 chemical elements,all of whichend in -ium and sound like a Latin flash card memory exercise.Periodic table aside, their import lies in the fact that these metals are used in a multiplicity of vital industries, among them being computers, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, wind turbines, magnets, and fluorescent lighting, as well as in defense applications, such as guided missiles.Given the increasing level of sophistication the mining industry has for rapid extraction, Beijingsimply can’t pretend to be holding a long-term strategic card here, even though “it sits on close to 40% of global rare earth deposits, produces 120,000 metric tons of rare earth a year, or roughly 80% of the global supply. For comparison, Australia, the world’s second largest supplier, produced just 20,000 metric tons last year,” writes Eamon Barrett of

And there is yet more production promised from non-Chinese sources: America’s Mountain Pass deposit used to be the world’s largest source for most of the globe’s rare earths. The current owner of the deposit, MP Materialsrecently announced that it was set to produce about 5,000 tonnes by next year, along with a Texas-based company that will begin production by 2022at the earliest. In the same report, Reuters indicates that these companies are heavily lobbying the Trump administration to prioritize the consumption of domestically sourced rare earths. That prospect can only be enhanced by Beijing’s short-sighted threat to weaponize these metals.

It is true that the mining of rare earths is both hazardous and highly toxic, as well as being expensive to extract in the United States, relative to historic prevailing prices (where the mines have been largely uneconomic in comparison with China’s lower cost deposits). So for both environmental and economic reasons, the United States and other countries have long elected to “export” much of this activity to China (especially after the bankruptcy of Molycorp, which once owned the Mountain Pass deposit). The environmental considerations are obviously less of a factor today, given the prospect of a Chinese embargo and a smokestack industry-loving American president. And higher anticipated rare earth prices substantially improve the underlying economics of American-based production (as will the backstop of a guaranteed market from the Pentagon).

It should also be noted that even though rare earths are used in a number of crucial industries, the United States itself is a very small market for the direct importation of the raw materials themselves (the dollar total of imports is around $160m). Japan remains a substantial importer of Chinese sourced rare earths, and this time around, Tokyo is not being threatened by the proposed embargo (so it could likely help its U.S. ally in a pinch). The only rare earths that the United States still imports directly in relatively large quantities are lanthanum (where its alloy is used in hydride batteries for hybrid cars) and cerium (for catalytic converters).

For the most part, the United States, including the Pentagon, buys components and finished products from global supply chains that start with mines and rare earth separation/production plants in China, but could also start in Australia (via Australian producer Lynas Corporation, whose stock price hit a five-year high on the newsof China’s threatened embargo), or Malaysia (via Lynas’s rare earth refinery in Kuantan), or Estonia (via Silmet, an Estonian refinery). Even if sourced from China, it is hard to see how the latter could disaggregate these orders to isolate U.S. end-users.

A leading Canadian producer in which I once invested when I was working as a fund manager, today known as Neo Rare Metals (I neither hold a position in the company today, nor do I work any longer as a fund manager), has a number of customers in Europe who insist on a China-free supply chain (a legacy of the last embargo, the requests for which are likely to multiply if China does in fact proceed with this threatened supply cutoff). Neo is able to accommodate these requests, the chairman indicated to me recently in email correspondence. In these cases, the company simply supplies its customers with magnetic materials from its plant in Thailand for which raw materials are sourced from either Estonia, or Lynas, or both.

As far as China’s much-ballyhooed embargo of Japan launched in September 2010, the effects were over before the end of that year, largely because of the mutual interdependence of the two economies. While Japanese companies were reliant on China’s rare earths to make chips, magnets, motors and other components, the problem from Beijing’s end is that its companies were also buying back a lot of Japanese-manufactured components for their own assembly plants. Consequently, when the Japanese component manufacturers ran out of rare material inventories, they could not ship requisite components back to China. The end result was that there were thousands of assembly line workers laid off in Dongguan and Shenzhen (in China’s manufacturing hub province of Guangdong) because their plants had to be idled. That is the more plausible reason as to why the embargo ultimately ended.

The upshot is that trade embargos, like disputes in trade (to intentionally invert Donald Trump’s misguided comments on trade wars), are neither good, nor easy to win. It is much more complicated than suggested in recent alarmist analyses, which overstate the magnitude of the Chinese threat. In fact, a longer-term embargo will almost certainly worsen Beijing’s position, which has enough on its plate these days, given mounting systemic stress in its domestic banking system. In the first instance, the threatened cutoff will undermine the country’s reputation as a reliable supplier, which means expanding searches for non-Chinese sources of rare earths. That was the ultimate outcome of Beijing’s attempt to weaponize its rare earth virtual monopoly last time. And if today’s resultant price spike is sustained for any significant period of time, it will bring forth additional marginal suppliers from other countries, all of which ultimately will reduce China’s market share and diminish its leverage further (so that the next threatened embargo becomes even less effective). The threat will more or less prove to be an example of China cutting off its nose to spite its face.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Interesting take this. I have read that there are other sources of rare earths that can be developed over time if the Chinese decide to close exports of their rare earths. A question that came to mind is the other side of the coin which is the processing of these rare earths. If I read it right, there are none at the moment in the United States though there is one under construction at Mountain Pass in California and due to be opened next year. There are also two more planned but they would not open till 2022 but that is then and this is now.
    The long and the short of it is that Globalism seems to work only well in a unipolar world and now that we are moving into a multipolar world, countries like the United States are suddenly discovering that as far as vital resources and industrial skills & production are concerned, maybe being part autarky is not so bad after all.

    1. vlade

      The problem with rare earths is that their mining and refining is, from what I know, an incredibly dirty stuff. It suited the US (and RotW generally) to outsource it to China – I’m not sure how well they could ever bring it back in any reasonable amounts

      1. redleg

        Benefaction of the different metals from the ore, which is either a carbonate or a phosphate, requires both hot concentrated hydrochloric acid and hot sodium hydroxide. The byproducts include both thorium and uranium in addition to CO2 if the ore is Bastnatite (REE carbonate), and even more CO2 if limestone is used to bring the effluent to a neutral pH.

        TLDR- processing the ore generates greenhouse gases, radioactive metals, acid and alkaline fluids, hot water, and toxic metals. It makes copper ore processing look benign.

    2. skippy

      Rare earths mining makes the FF industry look benign in retrospect, save the diminished scope, not to mention water needs vs locale. Hence a Billion+ large to build a south American pipe line to facilitate needs.

      Sounds kinda vulnerable, more so than the Suez.

  2. ObjectiveFunction

    Great piece, many thanks.

    For comparison, Dan Harris had a similar take last week at his excellent ChinaLawBlogs.

    However, he also asserts the following (paraphrased):

    The China price is about one quarter of the price that previously prevailed, that would result from an environmentally sound, worker friendly, profitable operation. 
    1. Rare earths mining regions in Inner Mongolia are classified as some of the most polluted regions in the world.
    2. The miners pay low wages and provide little or no health or safety protection to miners.
    3. Numerous small operations ruthlessly bid against each other, resulting in a price that barely covers the cost of production.
    As the China price is phased out, many green industries may prove to be unprofitable, especially EVs.

    I can’t verify his 1/4 cost assertion (big, if true), and therefore not his troubling conclusion. But from the limited amount I know of mining, it’s a pretty vile business across all 3 criteria pretty much everywhere in the world. ‘Creative devastation’ will doubtless find a way to meet demand….

  3. Godfree Roberts

    The Japanese matter was more complicated than this account lets on. Many small Chinese RE processors had driven prices below costs and Japan had wisely started building huge stockpiles–at great cost to China’s environment.

    Chinese PM Wen, a geologist, stepped in to reorganize and professionalize the industry and protect the environment and attracted serious funding for the project. He cleaned up the region, invested in research and in designing and building innovative extraction, concentration and purification methods. Today China owns 92% of RE IP and 95% of the equipment needed to do the job.

    Anyone interested in replicating China’s setup would need billions of dollars and the licenses for the processes, assuming that they can figure out how to make the process work affordably.

    1. Oregoncharles

      And why would the US respect Chinese patent claims? I suspect Trump would make quite a point of dissing them, since IP infringement is one of his beefs with China.

  4. upstater

    I believe that one missing piece in the article is the notion that rare earth mining and refining could be easily brought back to the US or its client states. The fact is that the technical expertise has grown old or is deceased. Universities have mining curriculums that are likely limited in staff and resources. You can’t develop decades of technical expertise in 3 or 5 years. It isn’t financial engineering.

    We see this same scenario on a much larger scale in the US or EU with the attempts to construct nuclear power plants or large scale public infrastructure. The technical expertise is gone and the industries are filled with all sorts of grifters and corruption, completely unrelated to labor or environmental regulations.

    1. Alex morfesis

      The USA can’t just…hmmm…when
      Less than 10 percent of the nation had ever stepped on a college campus, the Naval vessel WARD was pushed off into the sea within 18 DAYS for WW1 and fired the first shot on Dec 7 in Pearl Harbor sinking a Nipponese mini sub before the bombs fell…

      18 days…

      Today, about half the population has taken some form of post high school education…

      This sad continuous narrative attempting to limit the “notion” America can’t… Perhaps there are many among us who just won’t…

      But can’t ?? …that is a choice…

      1. Robert Valiant

        Right on! I can live in a dormitory six days a week, and assemble iPhones for $2/hour just like the Chinese, certainly if I have to choose that in order to retain my daughter’s “Obamaca.”

        JUST DO IT!

      2. Kurt Sperry

        I agree. Many –but certainly not all — of the “we can’t do manufacturing here any more” lamentations seem to be of the wishful thinking (from the globalist perspective) variety. Anyone telling me that all the laid-off autoworkers and subcomponent makers whose jobs were off-shored can’t quickly get back up to manufacturing speed making things is merely expressing their lack of will for that to be rather than a factual reality. The manufacturing supply chain for automotive production is as diverse and challenging as almost any. There are still hundreds of thousands of people alive with hands-on manufacturing expertise in the rust belt. The ones at least that haven’t offed themselves because of the globalists, who are the same ones saying those jobs are never coming back.

        When you hear someone say that America is no longer capable of doing manufacturing or flatly stating that “those jobs are never coming back”, you are dealing with a dangerous ideologue and not a rational argument.

        1. Synoia

          The issue is not manufacturing workers, it is the crafts, such as toolmakers, which have atrophied.

          Crafts where the foundation was laid in the “shop” high schools classes (eliminated by cuts in Education funding), and where craftsmen were taught their trade on the job, by older experienced workers.

          The older experienced workers have retired. The younger workers have no skills.

          As an example I’ll used my School: We had shop, we built stage lighting, etc. When I visited my school at the 50 year reunion, the state lighting was the lighting we had built, and no longer worked.

          No one could fix a wiring problem. Skills atrophy.

          1. j7915

            All these we can’t… in the USA seems like, the typical response from the people who cannot possible see themselves doing something so they KNOW that no one else, certainly a typical high school graduate or less, cannot possibly do it.

            The steepness of the learning curve is a given, and vo-tech gives a jump up the curve. Look at the picture of the young women at Oak Ridge monitoring the gaseous diffusion plant, they did not even have a clue what they were making, but they controlled and monitored the process.

            1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              Whre there’s a will, there’s a way.

              This should inspire, anyone, anytime, whether China in 1979, or America in 2019.

      3. upstater

        It was one thing to build WW1 or WW2 ships and planes. The supply chains were domestic and the technology basic.

        A more valid comparison might be the technology, dedication and skills required to accomplish the materials subset required for the Manhattan Project or Apollo.

        At one point I worked at a manufacturer of aerospace and high performance superalloys. You can count on your fingers of the number of facilities available to the US and its clients that have the skills, technology, staff and capital to make these metals. The single most important component is competent, dedicated and educated PEOPLE. It is a fiendishly complex process; milligrams of contamination in a fan blade can cause planes to fall out of the sky.

        The superalloys industry is strategic and the industrial policy of the US has been to maintain it domestically. If this industry had been off-shored, like so many others, it is a very fanciful notion to think that you can post help-wanted ads on LinkedIn or Craig’s List, find retired workers and have Amazon supply you with the furnaces and forges to make the product. It would take a decade or more to reconstitute such an industry.

        I believe the same is true for rare earths.

        Business and government are far too corrupt today to accomplish such tasks.

    2. Oregoncharles

      The mine in California, shut down because of outsourcing, is in the process of starting up again, and building a processing plant. It’s geology and chemistry: public knowledge. There would likely be a delay, but it will operate again if the market is there – and the federal government can perfectly well create one. It’s called “industrial policy.”

      The delay is actually what people are worried about.

  5. Synoia

    If I were to embargo the US, I’d not use rare earths. I’d embargo something like nuts and bolts.

    Then pick some other small item in the supply chain, such as roof ties, or nails, because there is a plethora of small inexpensive manufactured items used in construction, most of which are maid in China.

  6. timbers

    I think Moon of Alabama addressed the rare earth issue recently.

    His point was yes, China can restrict supply, yes the U.S. did get it’s own rare earth production.

    Then China started production again, flooded the U.S. market, and the drove the U.S. company into bankruptcy.

    1. Synoia

      The Historical use of Tariffs is not discussed. Tariffs are used to protect local manufacturers, and the jobs they create.

      Tariffs protect local manufacture and employment, and to crease protection for locally made import substitution. Without an industrial policy to create and protect local industry, and hence jobs, Tariffs are just another tax.

      I’ll repeat: Tariffs without policy to use the money to boost Local Manufacturing, are a Tax, paid by consumers.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Some years ago DoD grew concerned about rare earth metals because they are considered a vital component in the parts in much of our military electronics. The concern was that the Chinese had become a near single source for these materials. Yes we could restart our own mining and processing but with delays, possibly long delays, and at relatively high cost. An alternative is to maintain stockpiles of vital resources. However the rare earth metals scare raised further more disturbing concerns. We really don’t need rare earth metals as such, we need the components that use rare earth metals. The US has lost its rare earth metals production capabilities and to a similar degree its capabilities for manufacturing the components that use those materials … and not just those components. Even the assembly of components into circuit cards is done somewhere else. Some key subsystems are not made here. Single sources and insufficient stockpiles of vital materials are, or at least they once were, considered risks to our national security.

        I agree with this post’s assertion China’s threat to embargo shipments of rare earth metals is an empty threat, greatly overblown by our press, However I am not so sure the threat is devoid of meaning as a signal to the US and the countries that actually use the rare earth metals to make components in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. I wonder whether it might also be a signal to the Green New Deal initiatives. I must confess I have no clue what motivates the US position in this trade war. The US has no industrial policy or long term commitment to trade protections for any industries that might try to return to US soil, and the US and international cartels that dominate US business seem little interested in investing in rebuilding US industry. On the other side of this trade ‘war’ — the Chinese don’t seem to buy much from the US — soybeans? — and although they depend on selling goods into our consumer markets — as do Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan — I imagine our consumer markets are starting to look a little pale.

        As you say: “Tariffs without policy to use the money to boost Local Manufacturing, are a Tax, paid by consumers.”

        1. Prairie Bear

          Apparently, they are now not even buying much soy from the US. That might be just as well; if the weather in the Midwest doesn’t start cooperating pretty soon, we may not be producing nearly as much.

        2. Synapsid

          Jeremy Grimm (, Marshall Auerbach, and all):

          “We really don’t need rare earth metals as such, we need the components that use rare earth metals.”

          Precisely. The fabrication of such components is largely done in China; the US shipped rare-earth separates to China to be fabricated because that capability did not exist in the US and it is not going to be re-developed here on any scale at all easily, or quickly. Getting Mountain Pass up and running is fine as far as it goes but it supplies concentrates from ore, not metal products to be used in defense applications, the automotive industry and on and on.

          One source not mentioned in the article is Russia which has substantial rare-earth resources but hasn’t done much development of them, at least in part because China has such a head start. I expect that to change; it’s a topic worth keeping an eye on.

  7. Marshall Auerback

    The issue about multinational supply lines raises an interesting question: how do you isolate the American end-user? Consider the example that I used in my article.

  8. ewmayer

    An interesting perspective on the history of REE mining/processing in the U.S.:

    How the US lost the plot on rare earths |

    It’s a little known fact that the United States was once the largest producer of rare earths in the world, at the Mountain Pass Mine in California.
    Little happened at Mountain Pass during the 1950s except for the odd bit of research by the defense and scientific communities, but that all changed in the 1960s with the color TV. The discovery of europium, which emits a brilliant red light when bombarded with electrons, ushered in the age of technicolor, and Mountain Pass, which had abundant europium, flourished. Rare earths mined there were also used in medical scanners, lasers, fluorescent lights and microchips.

    In 1980, a mis-classification of rare earths had catastrophic consequences for US rare earth mining. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Regulatory Agency placed rare earth mining under the same regulations as mining thorium – a radioactive element that drops out when processing heavy rare earth minerals like monazite. As we have written, the nuclear industry and its future would look a whole lot different if thorium rather than uranium was pursued as the main nuclear fuel. But that’s a different story.

    New, onerous regulations on thorium made the mining and refining of thorium-bearing rare earth elements risky. Over the next two decades, the US rare earth mining industry collapsed. Defense One notes that, even though American mining companies extract enough rare earth ore, through mining other metals, to meet 85% of global demand, it is discarded because the regulations make it uneconomic to mine. How’s that for irony.

    The Chinese filled the void left by US rare earth mining with gusto – establishing the world’s largest rare earth research facility; filing the first rare earth patent in 1983 and over the next 14 years filing more patents than the US which had been working on them since 1950; and acquiring US technology in metals, alloys, magnets and rare earth components.

    The misguided thorium-related regulation would seem to be a rare instance where Trumpian regulatory rollback might be beneficial – get the domestic REE processing industry back in business, start stockpiling Thorium for a strategic long-term R&D investment in Thorium-based reactor technology. If nuclear really is a vital part of a low-carbon energy future, that is the way to go, not the enriched-Uranium route, which came to dominate during the 1950s and 60s because it was basically the same tech used by the nuclear weapons industry to generate the fissile material and Tritiated water vital for the then-burgeoning nuke arsenal. But that sort of strategic planning and the will to force it through a shot-term-thinking-dominated (and well funded to think that way) congress needs the likes of an FDR, not a Trump. (Or an Obama, or a W. Bush, or a Clinton, &c.)

    1. redleg

      Having been a Monazite prospector working with Molycorp(se) almost a decade ago, the concern about thorium is founded. Criticality risk pops up at Th concentrations of 6% in Monazite, so I had to go to great expense testing the ore for U and Th to show that the Th had concentrate in different minerals. That same testing was going to get my ore a higher price, so it was worth it (until bankruptcies killed the project).

  9. dk

    China is also a major (sometimes sole) global source for pharmaceutical precursors, the raw/cultured bases for things like antibiotics, glandular supplements, and cancer therapy medications. It’s not a simple picture, because China still lacks final production facilities for many types of medications. China is as well a major consumer of these products (the world’s largest market for insulin, for example), which means China ships raw bases out for final synthesis and then buys the consumer products back.

    Trade War With China Threatens To Make Problems With Generic Medicine Worse

    Many of the key ingredients for antibiotics are produced only in China. These are called APIs, or Active pharmaceutical ingredients.

    As an infectious disease physician, I was regularly hampered by drug shortages. A global shortage of piperacillin-tazobactam, a critically important antibiotic, occurred because of an explosion at a Chinese factory which was the sole source for its API. The manufacturing of the final drug occurred in India and Italy.

    But China is not a complacent consumer, and it is not a monolithic market:

    Pharma firms face shake-up with China’s plan to bulk-buy drugs

    Now, China has embarked on a pilot programme in which major cities bulk-buy certain drugs together, forcing companies to bid for contracts and driving down prices by an average of 52 per cent, one by as much as 90 per cent. Last week, Chinese Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan said China would be expanding the programme to cover more cities and drugs, as medicine prices must fall for health care to be affordable for the people.

    Multi-national pharma industry giants may have become complacent from profits sucked earned in the lucrative and often price-fixed US market. A US-China trade war could increase pressures to maintain past profit highs. The stakes for these companies keep rising, and may fuel especially aggressive resistance to pharma regulation and M4A-like legislation in the US. At the same time, the opponent’s distress is the protagonist’s advantage; instability for the pharma (and medical equipment) producers create opportunity for those seeking to remake national health care.

  10. RBHoughton

    I don’t know about the Indian border skirmishes but I doubt the Chinese invasion of Vietnam would be considered a debacle except in the west where invasions are for territory and wealth. The Chinese Army was sent across the border with a few days of rice. They were showing the flag and reminding Vietnam that China has military ability. Having made their appearance and achieved their diplomatic objective they withdrew.

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