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China is exploring limiting the export of rare earth minerals that are crucial for the manufacture of American F-35 fighter jets and other sophisticated weaponry. The move comes over the backdrop of the deteriorating Sino-US relations and an emerging technology war between the two countries.
Rare-earth elements are those with atomic numbers between lanthanum (57) and lutetium (71). Scandium and yttrium are often considered REs because they share some properties.
Fighter jets such as the F-35 rely heavily on rare earths for critical components such as electrical power systems and magnets. A Congressional Research Service report said that each F-35 required 417kg of rare-earth materials, according to ft.com. Rare earth materials are used in everything from precision-guided missiles to drones and are central to the manufacture of products including smartphones, electric vehicles and wind turbines.
The Trump administration tried to make it harder for Chinese companies to import sensitive US technology, such as high-end semiconductors. The Biden administration has signaled that it would also restrict certain exports but would work more closely with allies.
Although the US has sufficient raw materials, the domestic supply chain to alloy and manufacture rare-earth permanent magnets is almost nonexistent. Driven by an expected surge in demand for electric vehicles , wind turbines, and other applications requiring permanent magnets, consumption of many rare-earth elements is expected to outstrip the global supply within a decade. Coupled with an almost total US dependence on China for separated rare-earth materials and the magnets made from them, the impending shortage has prompted the US government to subsidize and stimulate domestic RE mining, metal-making, and magnet manufacturing, according to physicstoday.scitation.org.
The Pentagon has become increasingly concerned about the US reliance on China for rare earths. Ellen Lord, the top defense official for acquisitions until last year, told Congress in October that the US needed to create stockpiles of certain rare earths and re-establish domestic processing, pointing out at a “real vulnerability” of the US.
In recent months, the Pentagon has signed contracts with American and Australian miners to boost their onshore refining capacity and reduce their reliance on Chinese refiners.