Department of Defense officials are expected to sign off as early as this week on a report detailing just how dependent the U.S. military is on rare earth minerals. While the report has been in the works for over a year (it was required by Congress), it comes as rare earth minerals have become a major sticking point in U.S. trade relations with China.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported that China is blocking shipments of rare earth minerals to the United States. Though China has said the report is false, it still underscores U.S. vulnerability to Chinese trade decisions. This all comes as the Obama administration is investigating China’s green technology trade policies. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is looking into a lengthy petition by the United Steelworkers that accuses China of violating World Trade Organization rules by unfairly subsidizing exports of clean energy technology and controlling its rare earth minerals supplies.
Rare earth minerals, or rare earth elements, are essential components of scores of important products, including wind turbines, hybrid vehicles and cell phones. China has worked over the last two decades to develop its rare earth minerals, and now much of the world is dependent on the country for the vital resources. China currently produces 97 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals.
Rare earth minerals are also components of key technologies used by the military, including in communications equipment and smart bombs. But the U.S. military has never undertaken a comprehensive inventory of how reliant it is on rare earth minerals. The survey is now finished, and is currently being reviewed by key military officials, DOD spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said.
Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, said the DOD review was essential because the U.S. military has very little sense of how much it relies on rare earth minerals.
“In defense equipment, because stuff is manufactured by the private sector, and [the private sector] is not involved in the end-use of these products. … There’s sort of a detachment of information that happens,” Parthemore said, explaining that the U.S. military is often not privy to suppliers’ use of rare earth minerals because it is considered proprietary information.
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