A recent opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrongly argues the rare earth minerals crisis isn’t as bad as many claim and that markets alone will solve issues associated with China’s dominance. Unfortunately, the editorial glosses over China’s ability to cut off supplies; provides misleading information on China’s current and future involvement in rare earth production; inappropriately argues the U.S. can meet its defense needs in the event of an embargo; offers a knee-jerk assessment of rare earth mining and processing as environmentally destructive; and ignores the national security implications of an entirely market-driven approach.
This sort of counternarrative has stifled the development of a complete rare earth supply chain over the last decade, and will only scare and confuse the government and markets moving forward.
First, to say that China’s global share of rare earth production is “on the wane” is both misleading and ill-informed. There has only been a small decline in their dominance of rare earth oxide production, which ignores the critical downstream capabilities required to bring products to market, such as rare earth metals, alloys and magnets — products where China dominates and, in some cases, maintains nearly a total monopoly on production. Such a gap in supply chains exposes the U.S. to various national security risks, which makes oxide production gains far from a panacea.
Second, suggesting the U.S. could meet all Department of Defense needs for rare earths in the event of an embargo is incorrect and dangerous. Many key elements of U.S. defense systems rely on rare earth materials that are in short supply, or unavailable, outside of China. As the Biden administration’s new interim national security strategic guidance argues, these supply chains need to be secured in order to improve U.S. security and the economy.
Third, the idea that domestic rare earth mining and processing is environmentally destructive is misplaced. The U.S. has the most highly regulated and environmentally friendly rare earth mine in the world, using methods that can be replicated as the domestic market expands. The real environmental tragedy, however, is our continued habit of ignoring China’s willful environmental destruction in some of the world’s most harmful mining operations.
Fourth, relying on the free market to solve the rare earth supply chain issue is an approach we’ve tried before that failed miserably. Suggesting we do it again doesn’t acknowledge the critical national security risks involved with such a strategy and assumes the Communist Party will play by the rules that govern free and fair markets. Just as they’ve done in the past, and as the World Trade Organization has noted, China could unfairly tip the scales of the market in its favor. In turn, trusting markets to operate freely and fairly, as it relates to national security, would do anything but diminish China’s stronghold on current supply chains.
Not all of WSJ’s editorial board is off the mark: Innovation is a key element of future independence, which is why technologies that separate rare earth oxide more cheaply or build magnets using new technology need forms of government support and investment. More specifically, Defense Production Act investments in next-generation technologies for rapid solvent extraction separation could ensure long-term competitiveness and support for the innovation needed to compete with China.
Fortunately, the government seems to recognize the need for investment, at least for the moment: President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order that explicitly addresses chokepoints for materials deemed critical during the pandemic, such as semiconductors, pharmaceutical ingredients, pandemic supplies and rare earths. The order mandates a 100-day review to assess how existing critical supply chains may be repositioned to withstand the threats we face today.
Additionally, the House Armed Services Committee announced a bipartisan task force to investigate critical supply chains that will develop an expanded list of critical military supplies and recommendations for how to best deter risks.
While the executive order and House task force are both steps in the right direction, lawmakers and the administration should remain mindful of the need to reshore production processes, especially for materials that are essential for many defense-related technologies that help keep Americans safe.
The WSJ should note that even the 18th century economic theorist Adam Smith noted that market rules don’t apply to national security, so lawmakers and members of the administration must not be fooled by an entirely free market approach that ignores forces larger and more powerful than the invisible hand. Meanwhile, China’s intention to achieve economic dominance across the globe will not cease or bend to market forces (see the Made in China 2025 initiative), which requires an explicit strategy to safeguard America’s interests.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jeffery A. Green is the president of J. A. Green & Company. He previously served as a staff director and counsel for the House Armed Services Committee.