The importance of strategic metals to the U.S. economy came into sharp focus last November when China cut off Japan’s rare earth metals supply over a territorial dispute and Japan immediately backed down. Since then, Americans have learned that the majority of rare earth deposits are in China, accounting for 97% of world production.
China’s action against Japan also exposed a more threatening strategy in the works‐‐ to create a two-tiered price structure with China’s manufacturers receiving rare earths at significantly lower costs than the rest of the world. Prices outside China are now 20 times what they were 2 years ago and 40% higher than inside China.
Is America confronting a situation similar to the 1970s OPEC oil embargo? No, the current situation is actually far worse. Deng Xiaoping famously noted 30 years ago that “the Mideast has oil, China has rare earths”. What he didn’t say was unlike the Mideast, China also has the means to manufacture and distribute globally every product that requires rare earths, which today includes automobiles, computers, cell phones, fluorescent lights, much of our military equipment and nearly every green technology‐electric cars, wind turbines, fuel cells, solar panels, etc. This is precisely what makes the current situation so dangerous to the long term prospects for the U.S. economy and American jobs. A two‐tiered price structure could make it impossible for American manufacturers to compete with China in the 21st Century.
A constant refrain from economists and politicians is that American innovation is our way out of the current financial dilemma. Breakthrough U.S. discoveries in the past have created whole industries such as automobiles, commercial flight and computers, generating millions of jobs and national prosperity. But what if we are unable to participate in the next great American discovery simply because we can’t get the necessary raw materials at competitive prices? The millions of jobs would blossom where the materials are available. Today, that is China.