And that’s not all. China has an outsized dominance in what I term the Three Ms: 1) Mining and Mineral Engineering, 2) Metallurgical Engineering, and 3) Materials Science and Engineering. When it comes to rare earths and the Three Ms, China is fully aware of just how strategically important their position is.
As the Global Times, a state‐owned Chinese newspaper, put it: Rare earths are “an ace in Beijing’s hand.” As far back as 1992, Deng Xiaoping stressed that “the Middle East has oil; China has rare earths.” Importantly, China knows that rare earths can be weaponized. In May 2019, China’s Natural Development and Reform Commission, a body that oversees Chinese policy shifts, pointedly brought up rare earths in a question‐and‐answer bulletin regarding the prospects of a rare‐earths‐export ban. The notice read: “Will rare earths become China’s counter‐weapon against the US’s unwarranted suppression? What I can tell you is that if anyone wants to use products made from rare earth to curb the development of China, then the people of the revolutionary soviet base and the whole Chinese people will not be happy.” And now we learn from the FT that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is refining China’s rare‐earths‐weaponization strategy.
These strategies amount to more than an idle threat. Indeed, China has used export bans before. In 2010, China cut its exports of rare earths after a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships in the East China Sea. While the World Trade Organization ruled against these Chinese restrictions then, they are still a potentially viable threat moving forward.
To underline the importance and potential potency of the rare‐earths weapon, President Xi Jinping has a habit of visiting rare‐earths mining sites and plants that produce the precision magnets that rely on rare earths.