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Critical Mineral Supplies Could be the Next U.S.-China Flashpoint

Then-Vice President Joe Biden honors Chinese President Xi Jinping at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, 2015. (U.S. State Dept/Released)
February 17, 2023

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The recent controversy over China’s decision to send a surveillance balloon over the continental United States has once again thrust the United States’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the spotlight. Culminating with the cancellation of Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s planned trip to the country, the event underscores the deepening rift between the two countries. 

The first face to face meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the margins of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia months earlier may have very well set the stage for this recent incident. The meeting, which lasted for three hours and covered a range of topics from economic issues to escalating tensions over Taiwan, also included a promise from Mr. Biden that the United States would continue to “compete vigorously” with the PRC “including by investing in sources of strength at home and aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world.”

Keeping Chinese ambitions in check will be one of the most important geopolitical initiatives of the United States over the next decade. But in order to prove successful in this effort, leaders in Washington must continue to identify and address potential weaknesses before they become bigger problems. China, for example, today controls the majority of not just the production but also the processing of both critical minerals and rare earths globally. It’s an issue that if left unaddressed could cause more than a headache for the United States’ national security in the future. Securing our supply chain in the years ahead will have to be a priority for the United States if it plans to have any success in competing with the PRC.

As it stands, the United States has placed itself on an unsustainable trajectory. Problematic energy and environmental policies, coupled with an inexplicable willingness to rely upon China to provide crucial raw materials for both military and civilian technologies have left America exposed to economic and national security risks.  The United States needs an all-of-the-above approach to creating its own supply chain of rare earths and critical minerals, one that includes focusing on removing roadblocks to domestic production and processing as well as securing access to that with trusted companies abroad.

While there are several rare earths that are of significant importance, cobalt and lithium are of particular concern. These two elements in particular will be of great importance as there is a push to electrify transportation in the civilian and commercial sectors, and the incorporation of next-generation batteries becomes increasingly important in military applications. Should China use its existing control of the market to distort prices or disrupt of cut off supplies of critical minerals completely, the United States could find itself at a serious economic and military disadvantage.

Chaos in the domestic supply chain could ensue for an already fragile supply chain if batteries can’t be sourced for the electric powered commercial transport vehicles that some states are now mandating. The supply chain for military equipment that relies on lithium ion-batteries as well as other rare earths could also be disrupted, jeopardizing readiness and the ability to respond to future conflicts. 

Instituting more sensible environmental policies that encourage domestic production and refining of critical minerals would be a promising start, but that alone will not be sufficient to overcome this critical mineral deficit. The fact of the matter is the United States does not possess enough domestic deposits of the raw materials needed to plug the gap. The government must therefore also find ways to partner with American-owned and controlled businesses based in friendly countries abroad to help in sourcing and refining these critical minerals to overcome current shortcomings. 

The good news is it appears that the White House is aware of this growing problem. Special Presidential Coordinator Amos Hochstein recently told CNBC that they’re concerned, “Absolutely we’re behind.”  A White House fact sheet last year stated: “The U.S. is increasingly dependent on foreign sources for many of the processed versions of these minerals. Globally, China controls most of the market for processing and refining for cobalt, lithium, rare earths and other critical minerals.” It is now time for the Biden Administration to enact a policy agenda that tracks with resolving these concerns.

Winning this geopolitical contest against China is going to be a monumental effort that will require all-hands on deck. Ensuring the United States maintains a healthy economy to promote free and fair global markets and remains strong militarily to deter Chinese aggression will be key. Accomplishing both will require a steady and secure supply of both rare earths and critical minerals.

Col. Rob Maness (U.S. Air Force, Ret.) is the former commander of Kirtland Air Force Base and previously served as the Vice Commander of America’s largest Airborne Intelligence Wing