The new raw materials at centre of global disputes: rare earth elements


The Chinese president Xi Jinping, whose country is embroiled in a trade war with the United States, has threatened an embargo on Chinese exports of what are called rare earths. These metallic elements have become essential raw materials both for the technological transition to greener energy and in the digital world. And China has a near-monopoly on them. Mediapart's Martine Orange spoke about the issue with French expert Guillaume Pitron, author of a recent book on the growing global battle over these crucial elements.

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It was a visit which was intended to be a warning and was duly seen as one. Twenty-four hours after Google announced that the Chinese technology group Huawei would no longer have access to its Android operating system, China's president Xi Jinping, accompanied by his chief negotiator Lie He, conspicuously made a visit to the production site of JL MAG rare-Earth Co. Ltd at Ganzhou in southern China. This group specialises in the research and development of rare earth permanent magnetic materials.

The message could not have been clearer: Beijing was warning Washington that it, too, had the means to retaliate in the trade war in which it is embroiled with the United States. And among those means are rare earths. During their bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka in Japan on Friday June 28th, US president Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are thought to have discussed the issue of rare earths, a sign of just how crucial they have become in the geopolitics of raw materials.