The cold war between the United States and China for the 'rare earth'

One of the great differences between the Cold War between the USSR and the US and the Cold War 2.0 that seems to be brewing between China and the US is that in the first there was hardly any


  • Commercial war.China threatens to paralyze the export of key rare earths for the US in the middle of the Huawei crisis
  • Key minerals. There are rare earths here and they are ... in a place of La Mancha

One of the great differences between the Cold War between the USSR and the US and the Cold War 2.0 that seems to be brewing between China and the US is that in the first there was hardly any economic relations between the contenders, whereas now the commercial and financial contact between the two protagonists is very intricate .

But nothing is simpler - and easy to summarize in a headline - than trade in rare earths . The name of these minerals and the fact that their use is necessary for them to work from mobile phones to space rockets , gives them a very large propaganda value. It is much easier for Beijing to be scared by threatening that it will stop exporting rare earths , than by launching the idea that, for example, it will sell part of its US public debt portfolio.

The rare earths are 17 minerals that are anything but rare. According to the US Geological Survey (something like the Geological and Mining Institute of that country), they are "moderately abundant" in the Earth's crust. So the problem is not finding them or extracting them. The complicated thing is to separate them from other elements . This is an extremely polluting process, which requires the use of acids and radiation, and has caused the extraction of these materials has been abandoned in almost all the world with the exception of China, which produces around 95% worldwide, although the percentage varies a little each year.

In 2010, the Chinese government, which does not stand out precisely because of its transparency, admitted that the production of rare earths produces 22.5 million tons of toxic waste each year. That means 20 times the Twin Towers, which Al Qaeda destroyed in 2001. In fact, Apple, as part of its strategy of corporate responsibility and environmental impact reduction (although, probably, also to cut its dependence on China) wants to obtain land Rare of the recycling of devices that use them, but has not yet managed to develop a technology capable of achieving it.

But, precisely, the fact that Beijing has a monopoly on the production of these minerals gives it less power than it seems at first sight . If China stops selling rare earths , it will be losing a market. And, in a short time, the rest of the world will reactivate its production, although it will be more expensive because environmental regulations will be tougher than in China. The good thing about having commercial relations with your enemy is that it makes it harder to go to war.

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