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China in focus as West debates critical minerals challenge

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By Reuters

By Barbara Lewis

LONDON (Reuters) – Western powers will attend talks in Brussels next week on curbing China’s dominance of rare earths and other critical resources and EU officials will present their vision to create entire green supply chains.

The talks, on Nov. 19, have taken place annually for much of this decade, bringing together diplomats and industry representatives from the European Union, Japan and United States.

They have yet to weaken China’s power, especially over rare earths, and global trade tensions aggravate the situation.

In a daily news briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said it was not possible to “guide or monopolise” a certain sector or market in a closely connected world.

China, the world’s leading producer of rare earths, was “willing to satisfy the reasonable need” of various countries for resources and products, he said.

A net importers of most minerals, the European Union in 2011 was among the first to compile a critical raw materials list.

In common with other western powers, it views rare earths – a group of 17 elements with electronic and magnetic properties – vital because of their role in high-tech, low-emission economies and defence.

As battery vehicles, whose motors require rare earth magnets, and consumer demands for sustainability have climbed the agenda, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic says the EU strategy is to support development of entire supply chains, where possible on EU territory, based on ethical production.

“The position of the West is precarious,” Simon Moores, managing director at consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said. “These supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow.”

Minerals are deemed critical because of their economic importance, scarcity and the risk of supply disruption.

Rare earth minerals are not rare, but processing them and finding them in sufficient concentrations is problematic.

While the West wrestled with trying to produce profitably, China increased output aggressively and then in 2010 imposed export quotas, causing a price surge.

A World Trade Organization (WTO) case in 2014 found against China, but its dominance continues.

Michel Rademaker, a specialist at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands, said a solution is to accelerate production outside China.

He cited the Norra Karr rare earths deposit in Sweden, which could supply Europe’s needs for more than two decades.

That project is owned by Leading Edge Materials <LEM.V> of Canada, which for the first time will be an observer nation at the talks, joined by Australia, which has previously been an observer. The mining nations present their skills and resources as a solution.

Leading Edge CEO Mark Saxon said the company was working to get approvals to develop the Swedish deposit. In Europe environmental standards can make that a long process.

Europe’s lack of mining “requires discussion as a priority,” he said.

(Reporting by Barbara Lewis in London and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by David Evans and Mark Potter)