Our fabulous colleague Tom was kind enough to link to the Natural Security Blog from his non-CNAS home at Best Defense. Prompting him was Business Week's article on China's control of rare earth minerals, the importance of these minerals in defense applications, and how this combination could give China leverage.
Many people sent this article to both Will and I today. Our initial reaction was, "well, yeah." Any regular readers of this blog will have the same reaction. However, when natural security issues rise to the level of widespread media attention, we know that they are becoming yet more important and, often, that the true extent of U.S. vulnerabilities is just being fully realized. So while this story is not new by any stretch, today still marks an important step in creating enough momentum to (hopefully) design some policy solutions.
The article is a decent overview. Kudos to BW on pointing out that for many uses of these elements, we don't have adequate or appropriate substitutes. For some rare earths, their properties are unique enough that we may need to fully engineer solutions - direct substitution will not be effective. For a full examiniation of these issues, I suggest reading "Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military," a 2008 National Academies report that we have pulled from many times on this blog.
For our work on minerals and security, you can click the "minerals" tab to the left of this blog. We are also looking at minerals in the context of some of our regional work, and I'm at work on a paper examining more systematically how the U.S. government can watch for important warning signs that minerals are likely to become a defense supply chain or foreign policy nightmare. There's really no reason that we should be in this circumstance with China and rare earths as we are today.