Rare earths, in case you need a refresher, are a class of 17 elements used in everything from mobile phones, to hybrid car batteries, to flat-screen TVs, to guided missile systems, to wind turbines.
If it involves cutting-edge modern technology, chances are it requires rare earths.
So what’s the rub? Right now, China controls 93-97% of the world supply, depending on the source you choose to cite at your next cocktail party.
Still, the Chinese decision to stop exports to the U.S. marks one of the strangest export bans in recent history.
When Russia banned grain exports in August, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made the announcement himself and outed his fear that Russians would starve. But when China banned the export of rare earths to the United States, a New York Times reporter had to suss it out through “three rare earth industry officials, all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of business retaliation by Chinese authorities.”
There’s no indication how long the embargo may last, and a fourth industry official says it appears a stray shipment or two is still being allowed to go through.
It puts officials in Washington in an odd position: “We’ve seen the news report,” says a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, “and are seeking more information.”
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