China Corners Rare Metals Market

Nov. 15, 2009
Foreign firms and governments are growing increasingly concerned over lack of access to the metals used to make everything from hybrid vehicles to missiles.

As resource-hungry China scours the world for crude oil and natural gas supplies, it has managed to corner the global market for a group of obscure metals used to make iPods, wind farms and electric cars.

China supplies at least 95% of the world's rare earths -- 17 chemical elements with hard-to-pronounce names such as praseodymium and yttrium -- essential for a wide range of high-tech devices and green technologies.

The nation has long recognized the value of these metals, with the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping noting the Middle East had oil but China had rare earths.

And, as the Organization for the Petroleum Exporting Countries does with oil, China is tightly controlling the supply of these vital natural resources.

"China's goal is to create jobs in China and create goods in China," Jack Lifton, a U.S.-based independent rare earths analyst. "We need to start producing these metals here [United States] as we did in the past. If we don't do that, China will be the only country manufacturing devices using rare earths by the year 2015."

A single mine in China's northern Inner Mongolia region produces half of the world's rare earths, with the rest coming from smaller mines in southern China as well as Russia, India and Brazil.

China keeps most of the minerals within its borders by restricting foreign shipments.

Authorities have been increasingly restricting exports in recent years as China seeks to prop up prices, ensure supply for its own needs and create jobs for millions of migrant workers by luring foreign companies to its shores.

"The government hopes that the restrictions could prompt the transfer of advanced rare earth processing technologies into China," said Ren Xianfang, a Beijing-based economist with IHS Global Insight. "Whether this resource-in-exchange-for-technology strategy will work in favor of China remains to be seen."

Alarm bells started ringing this year amid reports that China's State Council, or cabinet, was considering further tightening restrictions and even banning the export of certain elements as well as closing mines.

Foreign companies and governments fear the new rules, if implemented, will deny them access to the metals used to make everything from hybrid vehicles to missiles, and force manufacturers to shift their plants to China.

"It's crunch time," said Dudley Kingsnorth, an Australian-based independent rare earths consultant. "In the next few years we are going to be in a situation where (export and production) quotas are reduced and unless we have sources outside China, more companies are going to have to relocate to China to secure access."

On top of the minimal rare earth production in Russia, India and Brazil, deposits being developed in Australia and the United States will be able to produce about 50,000 metric tons of rare earths by 2014.

But with total demand expected to double to around 180,000 metric tons within five years and China shutting the door on foreign buyers, analysts fear this may not be enough to meet global needs.

"Supply and demand are going to start to be fairly tight from 2012 to 2014," said Kingsnorth. "If there's a delay in those projects [in the United States and Australia], we are going to have real issues. There won't be enough rare earths."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

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