Rare Earth Elements as "a Political Weapon"

In 2019, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada to prepare a "scientometric study on rare earth elements (REEs) with a view to understanding the potential impact of new research on future security and defence capabilities and operations."

On its website, DRDC describes itself as "Canada's science, technology and innovation leader, trusted advisor, collaborative partner, and knowledge integrator for defence and security" with a stated role of providing "national leadership on defence and security science, technology and innovation to enhance Canada's defence and security posture." In doing so, DRDC "advise[s] the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces, as well as the public safety and national security communities on science and technology related issues."

The 2019 NRC Report entitled "Scientometric Study on Rare Earth Elements" was only made public by DRDC in September 2021 but not in its entirety, as a recent CBC news item related to the NRC Report revealed that "nearly 100 pages of Department of National Defence's internal files were withheld, underscoring the sensitivity of information surrounding access to these resources."

As the NRC Report emphasizes, REEs are 15 chemical elements that "are valued for their properties of thermal and electrical conductivity, magnetism, luminescence and ability to act as catalysts. They are indispensable to the manufacture of a wide variety of products, from appliances and baseball bats to smartphones and weapons systems."[1]

Report Accuses China of Using Rare Earth Elements as
a "Political Weapon"

In reference to REE applications related to "weapon systems," the NRC Report states the following:

"REEs are also crucial for national security, as they are key ingredients in the production of a variety of defence-related components and applications. For example, the military's night-vision goggles, GPS equipment, batteries, sensors and other defence electronics all utilize rare-earth elements. Praseodymium is used in Neodymium rare earth magnets, and acts as an alloying agent with magnesium to create high-strength metals used in aircraft engines. Terbium is used for laser targeting and weapons in combat vehicles. Other uses of REEs in defence include:

"- fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of the missile;

"- disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centres;

"- lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures;

"- satellite communications, radar, sonar on submarines and surface ships, optical equipment and speakers."[2]

The NRC Report goes on to say:

"At the same time as demand for rare earth elements continues to grow, there has been increasing concern among many nations about the instability of the supply chain, owing to the fact that China has a near monopoly on the mining, processing and supply of REEs. Any disruption to the availability of rare earths could have serious economic and national security impacts around the world."

In an attempt to use maritime boundary disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dao Islands and other islands in the East China sea, the author of the NRC Report, an "intelligence analyst" with NRC's Intelligence & Analytics, tries to depict China as an aggressor state that "is willing to use its rare earths as a political weapon." He says:

"In September 2010 during a border dispute, Japan detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that had collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels. China responded by announcing that it would halt all shipments of rare earths to Japan, whose high-tech industries heavily rely on the imported metals. Japan immediately released the Chinese fishing captain, and in so doing confirmed to the world China's control of REEs, what some observers called the 21st century version of the 'Oil Weapon' that Arab countries used during the 1973 OPEC embargo."

What this "intelligence analyst" forgets to mention is that Japan, with the support of the United States, has been actively pursuing a policy of stirring up trouble in those disputed waters with the help of American naval military presence in the form of aircraft carriers roaming the South and East China seas.[3]

Worldwide Distribution of Rare Earth Elements --
The Myth About the Chinese Monopoly

The past and present U.S. administration and the Trudeau government have been repeating ad nauseam that China poses a threat to the national security of both countries because of "China's near-monopoly of REE supply." The 2019 NRC Report argues in the same way by stating that "despite their prevalence, REEs are not found in concentrated deposits, making them difficult and costly to extract. As a result, the global supply comes from only a few sources; primarily China, which accounts for close to 90 per cent of the world's annual production. According to the U.S. Geological Survey's Mineral Commodities Summary 2019, the U.S. was 100 per cent reliant on imports of rare earths during 2018, 80 per cent of which came from China."[4] The same arguments were already presented as part of the U.S. narrative on China a decade ago.

In a document issued in March 2011 by the U.S. Congressional Research Service and entitled Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress, its author states that "From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States was the leader in global production of rare earths. Since that time, production of the world's supply of rare earths has shifted almost entirely to China, in part due to lower labour costs and lower environmental standards." The author of the same report goes on to say that "Policymakers are concerned with the nearly total U.S. dependence on China for rare earth elements, including oxides, phosphors, metals, alloys, and magnets, and its implications for U.S. national security" and that "the 'crisis' for many policymakers is not that China has cut its rare earth exports and appears to be restricting the world's access to rare earths, but that the United States has lost its domestic capacity to produce strategic and critical materials."[5]

In other words, the problem is not that China has embarked on a long-term plan to extract and refine REEs but that the ruling elite in the United States sees itself losing its world dominance and monopoly on the REE market in favour of China. This is why the 2011 U.S. Congressional Research Service Report emphasizes the need for the U.S. Department of Defense "to assess rare earth supply chain vulnerability issues" while "Congress may want to consider alternatives including development of a domestic rare earths stockpile; government investment in rare earths production, including various aspects of its supply chain; and partnering with foreign allies to diversify rare earth sources and decrease dependence on China."

The 2011 Report was followed by a December 2013 U.S. Congressional Research Service Report entitled Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain in which a case was made for "Rebuilding the U.S. Rare Earth Supply Chain." To show the "potential supply restriction or vulnerability" of rare earth elements and other minerals in the U.S., a world map was produced to "illustrate China's near-monopoly position in world rare earth production" for the period covering 2008-2013.[6]

REE World Production, Reserves and U.S. Imports, 2008-2013

However a more updated map taken from Natural Resources Canada's website, shows how the REE production between China and the rest of the world over the 2011-2020 decade, has significantly changed.[7]

 REE World Production, China and Rest of the world, 2011-2020 (Natural Resources Canada)

What that last graph shows, is that since 2016-2017, the REE production gap between China and what is called the "Rest of the world" has shrunk significantly, going from a difference in production of REEs of about 110,000 tonnes in 2011 to a difference in production of REEs of about 37,000 tonnes in 2020.

At the time the 2019 NRC Report was written, Australia was already the "second largest REE producer, while other countries with significant deposits include the U.S., Canada, Russia, Brazil, and India."

The next table shows the five main countries producing REEs in 2020, with China representing 58 per cent of world production, with the United States, Australia, Myanmar and Madagascar together representing now 38 per cent of world production.

 World REE production 2020 (Natural Resources Canada) 

Since the publication of the 2019 NRC Report, the first heavy rare earth element mine in Canada started its operations 100 km southeast of Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories (Nechalacho mine), owned by Australia-based Vital Metals.

Already in 2013, the U.S. administration had its eyes on Canada's REE potential deposits such as the one at Nechalacho because they "contain the heavy rare earth elements [HREEs] dysprosium, terbium, and europium, which are needed for magnets to operate at high temperatures."[8] The same HREEs dominate in the Quebec-Labrador area of Strange Lake where "The Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) signed an agreement with Midland Exploration Inc. for the development of the Ytterby project in Quebec, Canada. JOGMEC is under the authority of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry with a mandate to invest in projects worldwide to receive access to stable supplies of natural resources for Japan."[9]

Here is a summary of potential REE deposits in Canada as described by Natural Resources Canada:

The following map published by the government of Canada shows the location of existing and potential mining projects within Canada for extracting REEs as well as critical minerals such as lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, chromium, graphite, etc.

Map of Canada showing current and potential mining projects for REEs and other critical minerals (Natural Resources Canada)

All of these projects show that Canada is in lockstep with serving the U.S. war machine and with it, U.S. striving for world domination, including efforts to crush Russia and contain China. This is what the push for Canada’s REEs and critical minerals is all about.


This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 7 - July 17, 2022

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