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Oct. 8, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Countering China on tech minerals

By Bill Gertz
President Trump has signed an executive order aimed at countering China’s drive to corner the international market on rare earth minerals — key elements used in high-tech products that are the backbone of the U.S. economy and key weapons systems.

The Sept. 30 order calls on the government to end reliance on China and develop domestic supplies of processed rare earth minerals. A number of reports by government agencies must be sent to the White House in the coming weeks to describe the progress toward those goals.

“Our dependence on one country, the People’s Republic of China, for multiple critical minerals is particularly concerning,” Mr. Trump said in announcing the order, noting that the United States now imports 80% of its rare earth elements directly from China and some of the remainder is indirectly sourced from China through other countries.

“China used aggressive economic practices to strategically flood the global market for rare earth elements and displace its competitors,” Mr. Trump added.

As a result, China exploited its dominance in the rare earths market “by coercing industries that rely on these elements to locate their facilities, intellectual property and technology in China,” he said.

The president noted the danger revealed in 2010 when China suspended exports of processed rare earths to Japan during a dispute over waters in the East China Sea. That forced several companies to add factory capacity in China, threatened Japan’s industrial and defense sectors, and drove up prices worldwide.

Critical minerals are not actually rare, but there is a shortage of manufacturing facilities used to process them. Currently, around 80% of all rare earths are produced in China.

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin ordered state companies in 1991 to step up development of rare earths to “change the resource advantage into economic superiority.”

Mr. Trump’s presidential order cites the danger that China could cut off U.S. imports of barite, currently 50% of American imports. Barite is used in oil fracking, a process vital to U.S. energy production.

China also dominates the market for gallium, which is used in semiconductors for cellphones, blue and violet LEDs, diode lasers and 5G telecommunications. U.S. manufacturing also is completely reliant on imports for the graphite used in batteries for cellphones, laptops and electric cars. China produces 60% of the world’s graphite.

The Pentagon is in the process of building a heavy rare earth element separation and processing capability. The plant will process dysprosium and terbium, used in powerful magnets employed in precision-guided munitions flight control systems, pumps, sensors and advanced naval radar and ship cooling systems.

Rare earths got the name because, unlike minerals such as iron or silicon, they do not exist in large deposits and the process of extracting them is laborious and involves the use of toxic chemicals.

The United States in the past was a major producer and processor of rare earths, but the Mountain Pass mine in California and its plants were closed.

State Department officials say the United States, Japan, Australia and India, known collectively as the Quad, agreed to step up pressure on China over its aggression in regional waters and its use of disinformation and influence operations to promote Beijing’s authoritarian policies.

During a three-hour meeting in Tokyo this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and foreign ministers from Japan, Australia and India held the first formal meeting of what U.S. officials hope could become a kind of “Asian NATO” grouping.

Rather than a formal alliance, the Quad may be set up as a formal “framework” of nations bound together in agreement about the need to promote freedom and democracy in the face of Chinese expansionism.

“There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the Quad actually matter and function this time around,” said a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters on Mr. Pompeo’s flight back to the United States.

Mr. Pompeo has been a leading international voice calling out the policies of the Communist Party of China, including its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the stifling of freedom in Hong Kong, building military bases in the South China Sea and repressing Uighurs in western China.

For the Indians, the China threat boiled over in a border clash in the Himalayas that led to the beating deaths of Indian and Chinese troops recently.

Japan is pushing back against Chinese attempts to take control of the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands ruled by Tokyo for decades and recently claimed by Beijing.

Australia raised China’s extensive covert infiltration and subversion operations in its country that included the forced resignation of a senator with hidden links to the Chinese Communist Party.

“If you look at the single thing that’s driving all this, it’s a sudden turn toward gross aggression by the Chinese government in its entire periphery,” said one State Department official. “All the way around the Indo-Pacific and its western borders, you’re seeing things that you haven’t seen before, and [the Quad governments] are responding to that.”

Another topic of discussion in Tokyo was joint freedom of navigation and aerial transit in the face of Chinese expansionism in places like the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Quad leaders’ discussions also focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has damaged economies around the world. Australia’s government angered Beijing in announcing that an international investigation should be launched into how the virus outbreak began, something China has refused to do.

A second U.S. official noted: “Chinese aggression certainly draws a big part of this, but it’s also about the different models that we stand for, democratic countries and an authoritarian model, and which ones will be sort of more successful in the long run.

“This isn’t about a U.S.-China dispute. This is about the free world versus Chinese authoritarianism.”

One area of common concern is Beijing’s use of disinformation and the need to speak out against disinformation campaigns and Chinese propaganda.

“It’s important that we shine a light on what the Chinese Communist Party is doing,” the second official said.

China last month conducted a flight test of a Long March-11 rocket from the deck of a merchant ship, a sign, analysts say, that indicates Beijing could be developing the capability of firing missiles from freighters.

The Sept. 15 flight test of the rocket was carried out in the Yellow Sea from the deck of a heavy lift ship, according to two specialists at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Malcolm Davis and Charlie Lyons Jones wrote in a recent analysis that the Chinese military reporting on the launch said firing systems off freighters provides strategic advantages. The PLA Daily, the official military newspaper, said sea-based missile firing “increases launch efficiency and rocket-carrying capacity” and permits “the freedom to choose launch sites, [which can] effectively offset unwanted risks.”

The PLA also believes sea-based surface-ship ballistic missiles provide tactical flexibility not present in land-based missiles at fixed locations that are more easily targetable.

The LM-11 launch was sponsored by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology and used solid-fuel technology similar to the systems in the DF-21 and DF-26 intermediate-range missiles.

“The launching of the Long March-11 from a civilian vessel raises the prospect that China’s merchant fleet could be used to fire ballistic missiles in wartime,” the two analysts stated.

The use of freighters as missile-firing platforms increases the risk that China’s extensive international network of port facilities could eventually double as military bases. China has one of the largest merchant fleets in the world and is building a network of commercial port facilities around the world.

Iran is also known to have conducted a missile test off the deck of one of its merchant ships.

Some American military analysts have suggested that the Navy could rapidly augment its fleet of warships by developing its own missile-firing capability from merchant ships.

“The Navy should acquire and arm merchant ships, outfitting them with modular weapons and systems to take advantage of improving technology and shipping market conditions, while providing capability more rapidly and less expensively than traditional acquisition efforts,” R. Robinson Harris, Andrew Kerr, Kenneth Adams, Christopher Abt, Michael Venn and T.X. Hammes wrote last year in the U.S. Naval Institute journal Proceedings.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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