Rare earths – a hidden but strategic battleground between the US and China

While the trillion-dollar US military and intelligence apparatus dissipates our wealth fighting lightly armed men in the Middle East, China makes wise and large moves to become a great power.  Here we see the modern form of interstate conflict — and insights about the characters America and China.

Rare earths are obscure, vital, and scarce light metals used in a wide range of electronics (including military devices).  China supplies 85% – 95% of global demand, having cut prices and driven most competitors out of business.  One large alternative source is the Mountain Pass mine in California (inactive since 2002 due to environmental issues).  This was owned by Unocal.  In 2005 the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) attempted to buy it, a potential masterstroke, but was accidentally foiled by nationalist sentiment in the US (without any awareness of the stakes).

Goldman Sachs, Resource Capital, Pegasus Capital, and Traxys bought Molycorp (which owns the mine) in 2007 for $80 million, amidst rising concern about China’s lock on the supply of these valuable minerals.  With rising interest by the government, these politically well-connected players prepare to get richer.  That’s how America works.  Defense is just another means to convert power into wealth.

The most recent chapters of the game show this clearly.  The GAO publishes a report about this problem on 1 April 2010.  Two weeks later Molycorp announces an inital public offering (led by Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan), estimated to value the company at $1.5 billion.  Quite a coincidence, this wonderful timing!

We’ll have to wait to see the next moves.  We’ll have to do better if we hope to stay in the big leagues.

These articles tell the tale so far:

  1. Wikipedia entry about rare earth elements.
  2. Rare-Earth Industry Overview & Defense Applications“, James B. Hedrick, U.S. Geological Survey, 18 February 2005
  3. Wikipedia entry about CNOOC’s 2005 all-cash $18.5 billion offer to buy American oil company Unocal Corporation, topping an earlier bid by ChevronTexaco
  4. Rare Earth May Be China’s Checkmate“, Clint Cox, The Anchor House, 10 October 2006
  5. China: All Your Rare-Earth Metals Belong to Us“, Nathan Hodge, Wired, 26 August 2009
  6. China Tightens Grip on Rare Minerals“, New York Times, 31 August 2009 — “China is set to tighten its hammerlock on the market for some of the world’s most obscure but valuable minerals”
  7. China’s Ring of Power“, John Lee, Foreign Policy, 9 September 2009 — “While nobody was paying attention, Beijing was busy cornering the market on a little-known, but much coveted, strategic commodity.”
  8. Battling a Mineral Monopoly“, John T. Bennett, DefenseNews, 12 October 2009 — “As China Tightens Grip, Molycorp Ready To Step Up”
  9. Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain“, General Accountability Office, 1 April 2010
  10. Molycorp Plans To Sell Up To $350 Million In IPO“, Wall Street Journal, 16 April 2010
  11. Molycorp’s IPO Filing Answers Some Longstanding Questions, Jack Lifton, Seeking Alpha, 19 April 2010


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1 thought on “Rare earths – a hidden but strategic battleground between the US and China”

  1. Markets work: Rare Earths Fall as Industry Develops Alternatives

    Rare Earths Fall as Toyota Develops Alternatives“, Bloomberg, 29 September 2011 — Excerpt:

    Rare-earth prices are set to extend their decline from records this year as buyers including Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) and General Electric Co. (GE) scale back using the materials in their cars and windmills.

    Prices for cerium and lanthanum, the most abundant rare- earth elements, will drop by 50 percent in 12 months, Christopher Ecclestone, an analyst at Hallgarten & Co. in New York, has forecast. Neodymium and praseodymium, metals used in permanent rare-earth magnets, may fall as much as 15 percent, he said.

    Makers of electric cars, wind turbines and oil-refining catalysts have sought to reduce use of the metals after China, which supplies more than 90 percent of the market, said in July 2010 that it would cut exports and clamp down on the industry. That boosted prices, encouraging mining companies to develop new prospects and buyers to find alternatives.

    “If you think you can keep raising the prices for those materials and still keep your customers, you’re crazy,” Jack Lifton, co-founder of Technology Metals Research, said in a telephone interview. “The principal customer for rare-earth metals is a global automotive industry using rare-earth permanent magnets. That industry will engineer this stuff out.”

    Declines in August and September pared a five-month, fourfold surge that brought the average price for eight of the most widely used rare-earth oxides to a record 396,850 yuan ($62,025) a metric ton in July, data from consultant Shanghai Steelhome Information show. The average price declined 13 percent from its July peak as of Sept. 27.

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