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China takes a “rare” swipe at the US

China takes a “rare” swipe at the US

China now controls more than 80 percent of the world's supply of something that surrounds you all day, every day. And, according to the Financial Times [paywall], Beijing is threatening to cut the supply of that thing to the US. What are we talking about? Rare earths metals.


What are rare earth metals and why should you care about them? Rare earth metals are critical for manufacturing just about every electronic device that you, and all of the world's modern militaries, use every day. They're essential for making screens, hard drives, and precision glass.

Without rare earths, you can't use a cell phone, save a document, watch a Netflix series, drive a new car, take a digital photograph, fly a drone, target a missile, or build a fighter jet. You wouldn't even be able to read Signal — though we promise to make hard copies available if it comes to that.

It just so happens that China has a near-monopoly on the business of refining these metals for use in manufacturing. Since the 1990s, when environmental regulations in the US made it cheaper to refine rare earths in China, Beijing's share of the industry has risen from about 30 percent to more than 80 percent today. With that kind of market power, China can throw its weight around, and the US-China rivalry over technology creates a powerful incentive to do just that.

What is China threatening? According to the Financial Times scoop, China is conducting a fresh study to determine whether cutting off rare earths exports to the US would cripple the US defense industry, which relies on the stuff to make all of its key weapons systems. A single F-35 fighter jet, for example, contains close to 1,000 pounds of rare earths metals, according to a US congressional report.

The Pentagon knows all this, right? Of course. For years, Pentagon planners have been looking for ways to secure more access to rare earths mines, in particular by making inroads in southern African countries that are rich in reserves. And the Trump administration last year issued an emergency order to boost rare earths production in the US.

But the challenge isn't so much in finding rare earths — which are, despite their name, present all over the world, including in the US. It's extracting them and then refining them that costs and pollutes a lot. Private investors haven't been able to make it profitable under US rules, so US agencies and lawmakers have explored subsidizing production or making regulatory changes that make more rare earths available for refining.

But for a Biden administration that has put environmental protection at the center of its agenda, this could mean a tough tradeoff: protect the defense industry and Silicon Valley, or protect the environment.

Would China really do this? Cutting off rare earth supplies to the US would be a huge blow to the US defense industry, and could also complicate things for Silicon Valley, which relies on Chinese rare earths as well — though less so because so much of their manufacturing is actually in China at the moment.

Washington would almost certainly respond with severe sanctions or export limitations of its own. The US has already moved to limit China's ability to buy semiconductors, an area where China is almost entirely dependent on the outside world, in particular on Taiwan.

But there's another consideration for China — don't rock your own boat. By threatening to cut rare earths supply, the Chinese government adds to other countries' sense of urgency about developing their own mining and refining. While that obviously won't happen overnight, the threat of losing access to 80-90 percent of the world's rare earths supply would accelerate things significantly.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele is an unusual politician. The 39-year old political outsider boasts of his political triumphs on TikTok, dons a suave casual uniform (backwards-facing cap; leather jacket; tieless ), and refuses to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

Bukele also enjoys one of the world's highest approval ratings, and that's what helped his New Ideas party clinch a decisive victory in legislative elections on February 28, securing a close to two-third's supermajority (75 percent of the vote had been counted at the time of this writing).

His triumph will resonate far beyond the borders of El Salvador, Central America's smallest country, home to 6.5 million people. Now that Bukele has consolidated power in a big way, here are a few key developments to keep an eye on.

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Now that millions of high-priority Americans have been vaccinated, many people in low-risk groups are starting to ask the same question: when's my turn? Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious diseases expert, has an answer, but probably not the one they're hoping for: "It probably won't be until May or June before we can at least start to get the normal non-prioritized person vaccinated." On GZERO World, Dr. Fauci also addresses another burning question: why aren't schools reopening faster? And while Dr. Fauci acknowledges that reopening schools must be a top priority, he has no quick fixes there, either. In fact, that's kind of a theme of the interview.

Watch the GZERO World episode: Dr. Fauci's Pandemic Prognosis

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I thought I would talk today, I haven't spoken much about former President Trump since he's no longer president and I intend to continue that practice. But given this weekend and the big speech at CPAC and the fact that in the straw poll, Trump won and won by a long margin. I mean, DeSantis came in number two, but he's the Governor of Florida, CPAC was in Orlando, so that's a home court bias. In reality, it's Trump's party. And I think given all of that, it's worth spending a little bit of time reflecting on what that means, how I think about these things.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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