Many don’t realize that some of the most precious substances on earth today are minerals known as “rare earth elements” — such as neodymium, vanadium, and terbium. They are not rare in terms of their presence, and most of them are abundant in the earth’s crust. Rather, they are “rare” in that they are often not concentrated and can be commercially expensive to mine.
Yet, they are vitally important to our modern way of life, as they provide essential materials for advanced electronics, from cell phones to laser-guided missiles and fuel cells. And, currently, the nations of earth are mighty dependent on China for providing those minerals. It’s not, necessarily, because other nations do not have their own resources. The US has a number of mines, but much of the production has been halted due to environmental concerns. And as this chartillustrates, today China dominates the world in the production of these vital minerals.
Which makes today’s news in the Wall Street Journal worth paying attention to: “Tightening Its Grip, China Begins To Stockpile Rare-Earth Metals” (WSJ, 2/7/2011). From the article:
Details of the stockpiling plans haven’t been made public. But the outlines of the effort have emerged in recent statements from Chinese government agencies, state-controlled companies and reports in government-run media. The reports say storage facilities built in recent months in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia can hold more than the 39,813 metric tons China exported last year.
China controls more than 90% of current global supply of rare-earth metals—a group usually classified as 17 elements and sometimes are called “21st Century gold” for their importance in such high-tech applications as laser-guided weapons and hybrid-car batteries. Beijing has been tightening its exports with a quota policy.
Mining companies around the world have responded by taking steps to increase production.
Motivations are always hard to judge as official pronouncements from that nation almost always seem to be tailored to desired public belief, but regardless of intention the decision has other nations, commodity-trackers, and policymakers taking notice. South Korea, Japan, the UK, the EU, and the US are all looking over their national policies concerning rare-earth ore, and some are considering stockpiles of their own.
The Bible talks about the dangerous dependence on other nations the physical descendants of Abraham will have in the last days, a dependence that will make them vulnerable (e.g., Jer. 4:30). Rare-earth metals could be a vital element in such a scenario. Times of relative peace and normalized relations have allowed America, for instance, to think it safe to shut down its own mines for “environmental concerns” and to become overly dependent on China, a fast-growing economic and military rival. Should difficulties arise, however, the situation would be difficult to remedy quickly. As the article points out, it can take a decade to get a new mine up to production speed.