rare earths are not literally earths, nor are they so rare, but the use of these 17 elements is fundamental for the technological industries and green transition. More importantly, the mining of their main deposits is a practical global monopoly.
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Rare earths have several important physical properties for industry, ranging from their superconductivity at high temperatures when combined with other elements to the high magnetic capacity of some of them. Yes, they are used to manufacture circuits, but not only: the electric motor of your home elevator is much smaller, lighter and lifts much more weight than those of old elevators because instead of ordinary magnets it uses much more powerful neodymium magnets. Wind turbines, which do the reverse process – converting movement into electricity – have been able to scale in power over the last 20 years by using neodymium and dysprosium, like the vibrator in your mobile phone which is also a very small neodymium motor. And an electric Smart, like those that have become common in many European cities uses almost 12 kilos of neodymium in its engine. Other rare earths are useful because of their luminescence and are essential for such everyday things as TV, computer or telephone screens being able to display colors. Without rare earths, the aerospace industry, telephone lines, automobiles and electronics would go back half a century.
World production is concentrated in China (37%), Brazil (18%) and Russia (15%), but 97% is controlled by Chinese companies and capital. The US and Europe are clearly dependent and China has been setting prices, quantities and conditions of use for years before the trade war with the US began.
It was 2010 and the market for smart-phones was pointing towards a global boom. The screen business had never had such expectations. China then decided to drastically reduce its exports of lanthanides by almost 3/4. Although, as so often, the excuse was ecological sustainability, the reality is that this ensured a shift from an extractive monopoly to an industrial monopoly. Whoever wanted to produce telephone screens would have to open a factory in China… and transfer technology.
Almost immediately, China’s closest rivals, such as Japan, began looking for alternatives. If you could only produce screens by having your own supply, you needed to find new deposits… even if they were not very conventional. In 2013 Japan discovered in the mud of some sea beds in international waters a potential – albeit expensive – source of rare earths. Increased tensions with China led them to take it increasingly seriously and to fund new studies that proved the technical feasibility of off-shore mining.
Trade warfare and decoupling
However, it was only with the development of the trade war that, from 2019 onwards, China began to seriously consider using rare earths as a counterweight to the tariff pressure of the US, which in turn began to look for how to replace supplies. Rare earths had become a weapon of trade warfare. In fact, and along with the currency war, the most powerful in the Beijing arsenal.
In this context, the competition between different capitals to take control of deposits multiplied. Not only between Asians and North Americans, Chinese companies and the German Thyssen began to clash openly in Burundi and Zimbabwe for instance.
The acceleration of imperialist contradictions brought about by the covid pandemic completed the picture: in June of this year, China finally restricted US access to rare lands.
The US response was not long in coming: to set up its own extractive industry at full speed, feeding it with military and civilian purchases and stocks in order to overcome the difficulties that recently still seemed insurmountable. More importantly, the five eyes alliance (US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain), originally an intelligence club, was quickly recycled into a coalition of rare earth buyers and investors. The importance of these resources is so great that it is no coincidence that the five eyes is becoming the basis of a restrictive Anglo free trade block in which the only non-Anglo-Saxon country with which a special relationship is valued is Japan, which is also giving a boost to https://www. scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3097672/japan-moves-secure-rare-earths-reduce-dependence-china”> all kinds of benefits and facilitations to its companies to ensure the provision through purchases of shares and investments abroad.
When everyone is now trying to organize the decoupling of China to avoid the displacement of their investments, rare earths have shown their true importance. Controlling the production of rare earths today is tantamount not only to being able to subordinate the industrial development of rivals, but also to monopolizing applications in which to make profitable the over-accumulated capital for which each state and national capital is desperately and increasingly violently seeking its own destinations. This is why they were the tool of the first attempt to enforce Chinese global monopolies in mass industries and why the search for alternative suppliers has triggered the imperialist conflict in Africa and pushed the basis of a bloc of Anglo-Saxon powers. Rare earths are and will be for a long time at the center of technological development… and therefore, of imperialist conflict.