Getting Critical Medicines From China Is Risky. Critical Minerals, Too

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The rapid spread of the coronavirus is doing more than claim an alarming number of new human hosts – it is burning through decades of bureaucratic inertia and plain inattention as the American economic ecosystem has become dangerously dependent on China.

Take the current focus on critical medicines needed to combat COVID-19, everything from basic drugs to treat the virus to N95 surgical masks to guard against its spread.  We’re learning that these essentials come from China, ground zero for the virus itself.  At the White House and on Capitol Hill – at least those corners of the Congress that have not gone into self-quarantine – efforts are now underway to jump-start U.S. production and end this dangerous dependence. 

It’s an urgent issue demanding immediate attention.  But while Congress and the president are at it, they may want to broaden their focus from critical medicines to critical minerals.

Just as critical medicines from China are integrated across the U.S. health care spectrum, so too are critical minerals imbedded into all aspects of the U.S. supply chains for energy, high-tech manufacturing – and most worryingly, national defense.  Everything, in short, that makes 21st century America the economic and military power that it is.  

In terms of critical minerals vulnerability, the main focus is on rare earths, a group of 17 elements on the periodic table that are essential to everything from laptops and LEDs, electric vehicle drive trains and wind turbines to smartphones and smart bombs.  But the potential exposure of the U.S. is far wider than just the rare earths.  Is the U.S. interested in developing new fleets of electric vehicles – not to mention all manner of aerospace applications from miniaturized drones to private-sector space vehicles?  We’ll need graphite and manganese, two materials for which the U.S. is presently 100% import-dependent.  The world’s leading producer in both cases?  China.  Do we want to see the U.S. develop next-generation high-speed computer chips?  We’ll need gallium and arsenic, two more 100%-dependent materials.  The world’s leading producer?  Once again – China. 

As for national security, 16 of the 35 materials on the U.S. Government Critical Minerals Mist appear in a non-classified defense study as "hav[ing] already caused some kind of significant weapon system production delay for DoD."  For 22 of the 35 listed minerals, China is either the leading global producer, leading U.S. supplier – or both.

It would be one thing if the U.S. had no geological presence of these metals and minerals, and was consigned to be an importer from supplier nations.  But the U.S. is resource rich, geologically blessed with known resources of at least 32 of the 35 critical minerals, with deposits of heavy rare earths in Texas, graphite in Alaska, manganese in Arizona – not to mention innovative methods to recycle and recover critical minerals from spent EV batteries, rhenium for jet fighter engines from copper waste in Utah, and all manner of critical minerals from coal waste in Pennsylvania that’s never been considered as a potential supply source. 

As these examples suggest, American innovation is ready to “work the problem” of critical minerals supply.  What remains is for American political leadership to make U.S. production a priority, and align public policy with a pressing national need. With the coronavirus reaching pandemic proportions, America’s political leaders are right to focus on the dangers of reliance on a Chinese supply chain for critical medicines.  But the danger is no less real when it comes to reliance on Chinese supply of the critical minerals that power our 21st century tech economy – along with every advanced weapons platform in the American arsenal.

Daniel McGroarty is principal of Carmot Strategic Group Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based advisory focused on critical minerals. He served at senior levels at the White House and Pentagon, and has testified on rare earths and critical minerals issues in the U.S. House and Senate.

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