China is winning the fight over who controls rare earth metals (Photo by Vadim SavitskyTASS via Getty Images)

February 17, 2021   6 mins

Later this year, a Royal Navy carrier group centred on the fleet’s new flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will leave Portsmouth for the Far East, on a mission to fly the flag in Britain’s new Indo-Pacific area of strategic focus and, we are told, to “confront” China. With its complement of new British-made F-35 jets, the Queen Elizabeth will be Britain’s most significant asset for projecting power overseas. It is darkly ironic then that, like the global economy more generally, the F-35 itself is dependent on Chinese manufacturing to function. 

Chiefly, the F-35 relies on rare earth elements, or REEs, to operate. Its jet engines are coated with yttrium-enhanced ceramic to achieve supersonic speeds, and it requires powerful magnets made from neodymium for its weapons systems to function. Each F-35 jet contains 417kg of rare earth elements, of which between 90% and 95% of the world’s supply is sourced from China. Between 60% and 75% of the world’s supply of finished rare earth magnets is also produced in Chinese factories. 

So fragile is this supply chain, and so dependent on continued free trade with China, that the Pentagon has begun to stockpile a six-month supply of rare earth magnets in case of an emergency, with experts urging the US to invest in domestic manufacturing capacity “so if we go to war with China, we’re not calling them up asking for supply”. America’s new “National Defense Authorization Act” now calls for urgent action from the Pentagon to ensure that the majority of its REEs are sourced from countries other than China within five years.

Rare earth elements are not especially rare — they are more common than gold, for example — but they are present in the earth in microscopic concentrations, making it laborious and costly to extract and refine them. It takes between ten and fifteen years to establish the infrastructure to mine and process them: left to the logic of the free market, there is no case to do so, as it is simply cheaper to import REEs from China. The Chinese government, thinking in strategic rather than narrowly economic terms, has ploughed huge sums into developing the country’s domestic REE production infrastructure, and in doing so has established a system of Western dependency. 

Surveying the global scene just a few years ago, any sensible observer would have noted that there were three potential stumbling blocks to the continued smooth functioning of the globalised economy: a global pandemic, the eruption of great power competition edging into conflict, and catastrophic climate change. The Covid crisis, as a worldwide but not especially lethal pandemic, has raised awareness of the fragility of global supply chains and the strategic necessity for domestic manufacturing capacity in multiple sectors. Yet it is the intersection of the two other risks, climate change and great power conflict, that will shape the world of our near future. 

With the great industrialised power blocs now redirecting their economies towards the “green transition”, with some form of Green New Deal now the dominant medium-term economic model for Britain, the United States, China and the EU, the supply of rare earth elements and other minerals strategically vital to the new economy will become a new arena for global competition. Just as the wars of the 20th century saw wrangling for control of oil resources, the conflicts of the 21st century will seek to establish control of the elements necessary for the new technologies to function.

Green politics seems inextricably tied, in the popular imagination, with a form of utopian optimism derived from the unworldly idealism of the parties who promote it. Yet perhaps we are looking at the various Green New Deal proposals the wrong way: there is already a great deal of scepticism about their capacity to meaningfully arrest catastrophic climate change. But if we reinterpret the Green New Deal as primarily a means to restart a sluggish global economy after decades of stagnation, a gigantic form of Keynesian stimulus analogous to the New Deal after which it is named, or to the Trente Glorieuses during which a shattered post-war Europe rebuilt itself, its appeal to global policymakers compared to the alternatives of either degrowth or the status quo makes sense. 

A perception of the various Green New Deals as a collection of industrial policies derived from strategic and economic self-interest, as opposed to wooly-minded idealism, has not yet filtered through to the British commentariat. A Times comment piece last weekend, for example, laments the lack of favour purportedly shown by the Government towards the City, and asserts that “the new-found enthusiasm for industrial strategies, which promoted favoured sectors such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and green energy almost at random,” is merely the product of a crude anti-banker populism unique to this country, rather than what it is: a new phase of global capitalism, perhaps as significant as the Industrial Revolution in scope, which will reshape the entire global order.

Though it has barely impinged on the popular consciousness, we are already witnessing a new “Great Game” as industrial economies seek to secure their control of elements like lithium, essential to the production of the lithium-ion batteries which are rapidly turning electric vehicles from an expensive toy into the affordable, and soon dominant, mode of transport. China already manufactures 73% of the world’s supply of lithium cell batteries, far ahead of the United States, which comes second with a mere 12%.  Yet China is not content with this vast disparity in its favour, and is buying up controlling stakes in lithium mines from Australia to Bolivia, seeking to control the global supply and establishing yet another structural pattern of Western economic dependence on Chinese manufacturing.  

With cobalt and manganese too, both elements vital to the production of lithium-ion cells, China possesses only 1% of global supply within its borders, but controls 80% of the global production of refined cobalt. Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo: China owns eight of the country’s fourteen cobalt mines.

It is striking that while in Western countries, environmental policy has been until now limited to debating whether or not climate change is actually happening, and in the construction of an elaborate and largely meaningless system of carbon trading on the open market, Chinese policymakers have seen the future, and taken concrete steps to ensure that they control it.

It is, then, not far-fetched to imagine the Cold War between China and the United States, the initial stages of which we now live in, manifesting itself in an increased focus on and intervention in the politics of countries like Bolivia or the DRC. Myanmar, for example, mines around half of China’s supply of rare earth elements: its internal politics are therefore a matter of major strategic concern for China, and China’s leadership will aim to ensure a smooth and stable relationship with whoever controls the country, whatever their chosen system of government. This pattern will surely play out across the world, with climate change and the global order being fated to intersect, but what is the political end state? 

One strange and interesting recent book, Climate Leviathan, is a rare attempt to construct a non-utopian vision of the future political order deriving from both climate change and the industrial efforts to mitigate it. Taking their cues from the emphasis on sovereignty driving the political works of both Hobbes and Carl Schmitt, the authors, academics Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, assert that the logic of the Green New Deal, as of liberalism itself, ultimately leads towards global governance, the “Leviathan” of the title, which was perhaps always the endpoint of liberalism, as “all liberalism secretly anticipates a world government on the horizon of history”.

“A planetary green Keynesianism,” they write, “the only kind that might have a hope of confronting the problem in its scale and magnitude, is thus forced down one of two planetary paths — both of which lead, ultimately, to the same destination”: a form of Kantian perpetual rule under the hegemony of, most probably, the United States. By asserting both the urgent necessity of reordering the world in order to save it, and its own unique capacity to do so, the US will simultaneously assert itself, in Schmittian fashion, as global sovereign. 

“A US-centered Climate Leviathan like this could conceivably last a long time,” they predict, “since any attempt to defeat the United States militarily would also seem to unsettle the very management of life of Earth. Attempts to resist US hegemony would be treated as treasonous ‘terrorism’ of an extreme type, confronted with overwhelming military technology.”

Yet America does not necessarily possess the mandate of heaven: “we could see world war between two spheres of influence, leading to a collapse in the world system, or the consolidation of Climate Leviathan through collaboration between the United States and China [instead of] a US-centric Leviathan.”

It is very possible to envisage, they observe, Earth being divided into two great spheres of influence in a grand bargain between a declining United States and a rising China, a division of “the world system in a sort of grand compromise that includes shared planetary management, a “G2” concentration of the existing order bilaterally constituted to save life on Earth.”

Whether or not this vision is convincing, the urgency of theorising the politics of the emerging global system ought to be clearly apparent. Concrete action to mitigate climate change does not necessarily herald a new age of global cooperation against a shared threat: the Green transition is just as likely, if not more, to be a new arena of international friction and competition, against a darkening backdrop of ever-accelerating climate doom. 

The competition for the strategic resources of the new global economy, no doubt to be framed as ideological contests between liberal democracy and autocracy or between anarchic barbarism and human rights, will surely shape the world for the rest of our lifetimes. Whatever the merits of the Queen Elizabeth carrier group’s deployment to East Asia, the rare earth elements buried deep within the airframes of its showpiece fighter jets points to an unglamorous, but urgently necessary task for the government: to ensure that Britain secures its access to the minerals vital to the new technologies, and in doing so, safeguards our national security in the dawning age of great power competition.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.