As trade war heats up, China threatens clampdown on “rare earths”


CHINA, (CBS) — As trade tensions between Washington and Beijing intensify, China’s state media on Wednesday suggested it may play a new card — restricting U.S. access to “rare earths” the chemical elements that are widely used in everything from mobile phones and other consumer electronics to wind turbines, MRI machines and military hardware.

China dominates global exports of the 17 elements that constitute rare earths, accounting for almost 80 percent of America’s imports last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts. Other countries that supply rare earths to the U.S. include Australia, Estonia, France and Japan.

Here’s a look at what rare earths are and why they could play an important role in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

Rare earths aren’t that rare

The 17 elements defined as rare earths aren’t as rare as their moniker suggests — gold, copper and platinum are more abundant and easier to mine, for instance. By contrast, rare earths are ubiquitous in modern life, and their use is likely to spread as technology advances.

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