Rare Earth Elements: China and the Geopolitics of Strategic Minerals
Rare Earth Elements: China and the Geopolitics of Strategic Minerals
In her Rare Earth Elements: China and the Geopolitics of Strategic Minerals (Edizioni EGEA; Frontiere Series, Bocconi University Press, 2021, Italian translation by Giuseppe Barile), Sophia Kalantzakos offers some remarkable insights into the issue of rare earth elements, a strategic resource and “hot topic” for debate in the political science and international relations communities.
These rare earth elements are today, for all intents and purposes, critical to the production of a wide range of devices that are extremely important and widespread globally. This volume examines the impacts of growing global competition over the extraction and supply of so-called Rare Earth Elements (REEs), reflecting on the critical issues facing policymakers in developing strategies and responses in an increasingly interconnected world. The volume, divided into chapters accompanied by an extensive set of notes and enriched by a detailed bibliography, delves into a topic not only relevant to the long-standing debate over natural resources, sandwiched as it is between opportunities and limits of space, supply and power; but also of great importance for the geopolitical balances that make up the complex international chessboard.
By highlighting China’s mighty geo-economic footprint, the discussion highlights the key role that rare earth elements play in its basket of strategic resources. China currently has a monopoly in both the mining of REEs and their processing. What makes “these elements particularly valuable is the wide variety of electronic, magnetic, optical and catalytic properties they possess. REEs are considered facilitators because they enter into the production of alloys and compounds that are then used in complex technological systems.” (pp.111-112). Paraphrasing Kalantzakos, China currently monopolizes at least 93 percent of these materials and also controls their highly specialized metallurgy as well as the entire supply chain, from mine to market, for many applications. This gives it direct control over a significant range of inputs essential to the world economy, which, in addition to sectors that stimulate economic growth, extends to products critical to implementing the decarbonization so urgently required by global climate challenges.
Among the critical and indispensable products and metals for decarbonizing economies in the text are “batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), magnets for EVs and wind turbines, fluorescence in energy-efficient lighting, and solar cells” (p.119). Rare earths also turn out to be crucial – not least – in the productions of: hybrid motors (lanthanum, dysprosium), metal alloys (yttrium), automotive catalysts (cerium, neodymium), catalysts used in petroleum refining (cerium, lutetium, neodymium), magnets (praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium), hard disks for laptops (neodymium), earphones (neodymium), television and computer screens (europium), fluorescent materials (terbium, erbium), permanent magnets (terbium, dysprosium), ceramics (yttrium), agents in metal alloys (yttrium) and steel (ytterbium), glass coloring (holmium), lasers (holmium, ytterbium), medical X-ray units (thulium) (p. 120 ).
From the focus on China, the reflection also extends to those strategic relations between the Country of the Dragon and the United States, interpreting today’s international relations and political economy from an unconventional perspective, highlighting how today’s complexity and technological progress now require from all of us new ways of thinking, acting and cooperating to find solutions to long-standing issues of profound social and economic impact; to get this far, it becomes clear how, with ad hoc policies, Chinese governance has been able to carefully orchestrate the conditions that guarantee its monopoly over a number of strategic resources of importance compared to other international players, thus making itself indispensable in a finely structured, multi-sectoral market basin.
For example, quoting Kalantzakos “for batteries and magnets […] the People’s Republic of China […] dominates entire supply chains that cannot be easily reconstructed. At the heart of this strategy is Beijing’s ambition to become a ‘global manufacturing,’ ‘cyber,’ ‘superpower of science and technological innovation’ by 2049” (p.7). Such reflection on the relationship between China and the United States sends the reader back to an analysis of the relationship between the two superpowers, keeping track of some major themes that historically bind them together. Equally significant are the readings of today’s power relations, in light of the constantly shifting strategic relationships and “Cold War” tensions, with the numerous attempts at decoupling, seeking to outline future scenarios, where between the two players competitive inclinations (think of the strategic function of mineral scarcity, a phenomenon often artificially triggered at state level) far outweigh cooperation.
The largely multidisciplinary analysis lends richness to the perspective offered by the reading, making Rare Earth Elements: China and the Geopolitics of Strategic Minerals accessible and thought-provoking to a wide readership, as much to neophytes as to experts in the field as well as to all those professionals or analysts who carry out research, also in other fields, nurturing and developing an interesting debate on the qualities and effectiveness of traditional economic models (e.g, comparing a linear system with a circular one) and about which one might be the most sustainable for the lifecycle of strategic elements, their production and their eventual recycling and reconditioning through the application of virtuous recovery protocols (a topic of no small importance, considering how much the current international balance is suffering from the continuing semiconductor shortage).
As a valuable contribution to thinking about large-scale innovations and technological progress and the baricenter of forces vying for a primary role in the marketplace, Sophia Kalantzakos’ discussion offers the reader, with data in hand, an accurate set of glimpses onto the international chessboard, where China’s monopoly of rare earth elements plays a potentially central and hot role in the current and coming decades’ political framework, bringing with it risks (think of the phenomenon of the weaponization of trade and its implications for the multipolarized world), limits of maneuver and opportunities, allowing us to think more consciously about the power relations among the great powers and to potential futuristic scenarios; scenarios that the trajectories of world affairs will help define.
Sophia Kalantzakos is Global Distinguished Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University. She has taught for many years at NYU Abu Dhabi, where she founded and directs the eARThumanities research project. She was Fung Global Fellow at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and, in 2020-2021, Senior Fellow at the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology (Caltech – Huntington). In the summer of 2020, she launched a project entitled The Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water, which addresses the issue of growing water insecurity. She is a member of the Rachel Carson Center, LMU, Munich Academic Advisory Board and President of the RCC Society Of Fellows. Her research, marked by a strong interdisciplinary approach, focuses on resources, power and the new imaginaries that reflect the ways in which we think about global space and interdependence; she also delves into the emerging new models and pathways of possibilist thinking as an interpretive key to re-imagining geopolitics in the 21st century.
In addition to Rare Earths: China and the Geopolitics of Strategic Minerals (Edizioni EGEA; Frontiers Series, Bocconi University Press, 2021), we would like to mention The EU, US, and China Tackling Climate Change: Polices and Alliances for the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2017).