Ignoring China’s grip on critical metals production is not an option | Brunell

China processes more than 90 percent of the world’s manganese, while the U.S. has none.

Don Brunell

Don Brunell

China’s growing dominance of critical metals production and its vast stockpiles is setting off global alarms as economies emerge from the punishing COVID pandemic. It is not only fear of the Chinese control of refined rare earth minerals, but more traditional metals such as manganese.

Ores containing these elements are located in deposits across our planet; however, the technology to process them is largely in China. As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Xi Jinping exerts its leverage, China is tightening export allocations and driving up prices.

The 17 elements classified as “rare earth” are not commonly known, but they are critical components in products ranging from smart phones and laptop computers to batteries, electric vehicle and jet engines, wind turbines, LEDs and major weapon systems.

Rare earth metals are important because of their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties which make many technologies perform with reduced weight, emissions, and energy consumption.

However, manganese is long-recognized as an essential ingredient of steel— the frame work in buildings, ships and vehicles. It is the backbone of all modern industrial components – not only in the commercial economy, but for our Army, Navy, Air Force and Space Force.

China processes more than 90 percent of the world’s manganese. The United States has no manganese production. There is no substitute for manganese when forging steel. It takes 13 pounds of manganese to make one ton of steel.

The clear and present danger, as Wall Street Journal reporter Chuin-Wei Yap noted on May 21, is “dozens of Chinese manganese processors accounting for most of global capacity have joined a state-backed campaign to establish a “manganese innovation alliance,” setting out in planning documents goals and moves that others in the industry say are akin to a production cartel.”

“They include centralizing control over supply of key products, coordinating prices, stockpiling and networks for mutual financial assistance,” Chuin-Wei Yap added. “The manganese alliance notched a success this year in throttling the supply of critical products, mainly steel-strengthening additives, sending their prices soaring more than 50 percent in three months.”

China’s strategy is not new. It has been developing since the 1980s and is engrained in its Made in China 2025 plan. The key goal is to dominate global metals output and calls for massive domestic stockpiles.

Last year, China announced a new trillion dollar program to develop next-generation technologies as it seeks to catapult itself ahead of the U.S. in critical technology areas, Wall Street Journal reporter Liza Lin wrote. The focus is artificial intelligence, data centers, mobile communications and superfast cellular (5G) networks. Its success hinges on controlling essential metals.

Meanwhile, many smelting and refining operations in the U.S. have been closed and dismantled. They were heavy polluters; however, they provided our nation with strategic capacity to provide essential metals.

One major closure was Tacoma’s ASARCO heavy metals smelter in 1985. Similar shut downs and razings occurred in Montana—Anaconda, Great Falls and East Helena—and in Kellogg, Idaho, at same time. Meanwhile, Montana and Idaho mines still operate yet their ores are concentrated and shipped to smelters in Japan and Korea.

Presidents Trump and Biden along with other world leaders recognized the potential strangle hold China is starting to apply. However, diversify metals production is easier said than done, are costly and take time. The PRC has the technology and the installed capacity to leverage its strategy right now.

While the rest of the world plays “catch-up”, America should increase its stockpiles, support alliances to offset China’s dominance, and encourage recycling of metals currently in the system.

However, ignoring China’s grip on the world’s critical metals supplies is no longer an option.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@courierherald.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.courierherald.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 500 words or less.

More in Business

Don Brunell
Land is the wild card in Biden’s green gamble |Brunell

It will take a lot of land to covert the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy.

Don Brunell
Ignoring China’s grip on critical metals production is not an option | Brunell

China processes more than 90 percent of the world’s manganese, while the U.S. has none.

Ian McLeod speaks with customers behind the desk at Rock Paper Games on Main Street in Buckley on the afternoon of May 11. Photo by Alex Bruell
Buckley game shop is a critical hit

‘Rock Paper Games’ has weathered COVID-19 with the help of the Plateau gaming community

Don Brunell
Building our future electricity supply around hydropower | Brunell

Instead of eliminating fossil-fuel power plants, Washington and New Zealand should work on making those plants fore energy efficient.

The Moe Vegan food truck serves meals at the city of Kent’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner on Nov. 21, 2020. Sound Publishing file photo
King County fire marshals offer regulatory relief to food trucks

39 fire authorities have reportedly agreed to standardize fire codes and inspections.

Don Brunell
Unemployment insurance intended as a bridge between jobs | Brunell

It shouldn’t be an incentive to stay jobless.

From left to right: Peggy Wenham, Toby Wenham and Sheree Schmidt stand for a picture outside Sweet Necessities on Griffin Avenue. Photo by Alex Bruell
For sale: Enumclaw candy shop Sweet Necessities looks for a new owner

Co-owner Toby Wenham is joining his wife Peggy in retirement from their twin Enumclaw businesses

Don Brunell
Rethinking natural gas bans | Brunell

Washington shouldn’t ban natural gas in new homes. Thankfully, Olympia left the bad legislation on the table this session.

Nickie Lynn's 22x22-foot labyrinth takes up nearly the entire floor space in her Myrtle Avenue location. Photo by Ray Miller-Still
A new ‘place for healing’ opens in heart of Enumclaw

Nickie Lynn has earned a Masters in pastoral studies and has been certified in pastoral ministry, spiritual direction, and labyrinth facilitation — all to help you on your spiritual journey.

Don Brunell
North American ports remain closed to large cruise ships | Brunell

Losing out on cruise ship season last year cost Alaska $3 billion.

Don Brunell
Good news from Hanford | Brunell

If Washington is going to reduce CO2 emissions, then it has to go nuclear.

A street sign along Bay Street in Toronto's financial district is shown on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Energy and base metals help lift TSX in early trading, U.S. markets down

TORONTO — The energy and base metal sectors helped lift Canada’s main… Continue reading