The Resource Wars Are Only Beginning

By Daniel McGroarty

A Rare Earths white paper released last week by a Chinese government agency is proving a Rorschach ink blot for non-Chinese commentators. Twitter traffic captures the cacophony: China defends Rare Earths curbs … China concedes errors … China shifts course … China counter-attacks …

It doesn't take an English Lit deconstructionist to discern that when so many different readers unpack the same text in such different ways, it tells us more about the assumptions we're carrying into the analysis than the interpretations we're pulling out.

And yet, as Freud could have told us, sometimes a white paper is just a white Paper. And what 'Situation and Policies of China's Rare Earths Industry' tells us is fairly straightforward: For decades, China has produced an increasing percentage of the world's Rare Earths, at significant cost to its environment, to satisfy willing buyers from nations quite content to see China deplete its own Rare Earths reserves. If there's a subtext of any sort, what the white paper does is mine the World Trade Organization articles to mount a pre-emptive defense of Chinese Rare Earths policy, as the WTO process moves from the unsuccessful 60-day mediation period to the quasi-judicial dispute settlement phase.

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As the editorialists at the People's Daily opined earlier this year, 'Experts believe that the current issue faced by China is how China should use "WTO language" to safeguard its economic sovereignty. Looks like the authors of the Rare Earths white paper got the memo.

Case in point: In the white paper, China claims to correct the record in terms of its known Rare Earths reserve, which it puts at 23 percent of the world's total, not 36 percent as calculated by the U.S. Geological Survey. It's clear enough where China is going with this, as it will argue in the WTO that its sovereign right to manage its own non-renewable resources blunts any demand by other nations that China serve as the world's Rare Earths super-store, while many of the same nations 'stockpile' their Rare Earths reserves, simply by leaving them in the ground.

It's a nifty legal tactic – and then again, it may just be true. The dean of the Rare Earths analysts, Dudley Kingsnorth, now speaks of China having perhaps 12 to 15 years left of Heavy Rare Earths, those now selling in the thousands of dollars per kilogram, 10, 20 and even 30 times more than the current price for Light Rare Earths. Will the WTO dare to order China to keep mining metals in such short supply? As any American crime show fan can tell you, for the defense, it's all about creating "reasonable doubt."

Two other developments overshadowed by the Rare Earths white paper provide a glimpse of China's plans and policies regarding not just the Rare Earths, but a broader range of strategic resources.

The first was a piece published in early June in China's Shanghai Daily, reporting that Chinese turning in anyone involved in the burgeoning black market network of illegal mining, refining and smuggling of Rare Earths would be eligible for a reward of 50,000 yuan – nearly $8,000 U.S. dollars, or, for a typical South China subsistence farmer earning a dollar a day, about 20 years of wages. The average American would have to walk an al-Qaeda kingpin into FBI headquarters to claim a comparable cash reward.

Analysts estimate that China's illegal Rare Earths trade delivers as much as 40,000 metric tons a year of the metals to the global market. To put that amount in perspective, if China succeeds in cracking down on the illegal Rare Earths racket, it will more than cancel out the planned non-Chinese production from the United States' Mountain Pass mine and Australia's largest Rare Earths mine added together. So as the world races to bring more Rare Earths to the market, China is working to ratchet back supply – and ensure the remainder is tightly under Politburo control.

But China's Rare Earths policies are in turn part of its larger policy on natural resources, essential to the nation's rapid modernization in decades to come. Hence the second development in June to offer insights into China's larger resource strategy: The Hong Kong Exchange's (HKEx) offer of $2 billion for the London Metals Exchange (LME).

In a world of looming resource scarcity, this fusion of finance and resource supply should bring serious scrutiny to China's policies. Whether it will is an open question. UK authorities -- who have the mandate to approve the deal -- could start with this question: Why would the Hong Kong Exchange make what one analyst called 'the most expensive bid ever' for LME?

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Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

(AP Photo)

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