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Monday, February 7, 2011

CHINA is building strategic reserves in rare earth metals

Details of the stockpiling plans haven’t been made public. But the outlines of the effort have emerged in recent statements from Chinese government agencies, state-controlled companies and reports in government-run media. The reports say storage facilities built in recent months in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia can hold more than the 39,813 tonnes China exported last year.

China controls more than 90 per cent of current global supply of rare earth metals - a group of usually classified as 17 elements and sometimes are called “21st Century gold” for their importance in such high-tech applications as laser-guided weapons and hybrid-car batteries. Beijing has been tightening its exports with a quota policy.

Many rare earth minerals aren’t actually rare, and China doesn’t have a monopoly on deposits of any particular rare earth elements. The US Geological Survey recently estimated that China has about half the world’s 110 million tonnes of rare earth deposits, however. And mining in the US and elsewhere fell off several years ago, in part because of environmental concerns. Australia’s Lynas Corp, US-based Molycorp and other companies around the world are ramping up mining. But a new mine can take a decade to develop, and processing of rare earth elements will remain concentrated in China for years.

Industry observers say that if the stockpiling efforts further restrict China’s exports, that could raise hackles higher in foreign capitals, where some governments already are threatening to challenge Beijing’s quota regime by bringing complaints to the World Trade Organisation.

The Chinese stockpiling, under the direction of the Ministry of Land and Resources, began with a pilot project almost a year ago in China’s primary mining region of Baotou in Inner Mongolia and is related to the ministry’s assertion of authority in recent years over mining regions. At least 10 storage facilities are being built and managed by the world’s largest producer of rare earth metals, government-controlled Baotou Steel Rare earth Hi-Tech Co. Chinese state media reports say stockpiles may eventually top 100,000 tonnes.

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