Just like the gold rushes of California between 1848 and 1855, Canada’s Klonike of 1896 to 1899, and Western Australia’s of the 1890s, the world is experiencing a frenzy to obtain mining rights in pursuit of today’s “gold,” namely rare earth minerals. Used for components of electric vehicle batteries, mobile telephones, flat-screen televisions, flash drives, cameras, precision-guided missiles, industrial magnets, wind turbines, solar panels, and other high-tech items, rare earth minerals have become the type of sought-after commodity that uranium and plutonium were during the onset of the atomic age.
Rare earth minerals do not easily roll off one’s tongue in the same manner as gold, silver, and platinum. For example, yttrium oxide and europium, while sounding unimportant, are what provide the red hue in color televisions.
Nations around the world are scrambling to secure reserves containing rare earth minerals. China, where one-third of the planet’s rare earth minerals are currently found, has severely restricted the export of the minerals to friends and competitors. One of the largest known reserves of rare earths is the Bayan Obo deposit in China’s Inner Mongolia.
China’s export restrictions have sent nations around the world on search missions to secure both known and untapped rare earth deposits. One such mother lode of rare earth minerals has been discovered in the eastern southern Pacific Ocean. The estimates are that the deep ocean region contains twice the amount of rare earths than found in China.
Some of these deposits are in undersea geologically active zones, where deep sea floor vents spew rare earth minerals from expulsions of lava and hot gases. The discovery that the South Pacific region is rich in rare earths has led European nations, including France and Britain, which maintain colonies in the area, re-staking their colonial footprints.
France, for example, is reticent to grant further autonomy or independence to New Caledonia, where an independence referendum is scheduled for November 8, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna. Similarly, Britain has showed a renewed interest in the Pitcairn Islands, where a handful of descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers continue to live.
In 2015, Australia stamped out self-government of Norfolk Island, turning the island into a hybrid municipality of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. New Zealand has vetoed ambitions by two of its elf-governing “associated states” – the Cook Islands and Niue – for full membership in the United Nations. For these colonial powers, it is not what is about what lies above the sea – island resorts – but what lies under the sea within the marine borders of the territories and that is rare earth minerals.
With the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, rare earth reserves have been discovered in Greenland, a “self-governing” territory of Denmark. Moves by the Greenland government to seek independence from Denmark and permit Chinese companies to mine rare earth minerals have met with stiff opposition from Denmark, the United States, and NATO.
Other countries possessing significant deposits of rare earths include India, Russia, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil, and the United States. These nations, as well as China, all have varying degrees of the necessary political, economic, and military might to protect their rare earth resources.
However, some developing nations, where rare earths have been discovered, are candidates for ruthless exploitation by multinational firms, some under the direction of governments, to secure exclusive mining rights. In fact, Toyota, which has a tight relationship with the Japanese government, bought a rare earth mine in Vietnam to ensure such exclusivity rights.
Japan may not have to worry about Vietnam as its major source of rare earths. Earlier this year, a deposit of some 16 million tons of rare earth mineral oxides was discovered in deep sea mud located 1150 miles southeast of Tokyo. The deposit contained much of the rare earths upon which Japan’s consumer electronics industry is reliant: yttrium, dysprosium, terbium, and europium.
In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, columbite-tantalite, a mineral used in the manufacture of semi-conductor chips, is such a hot commodity that rival warlords, some acting on behalf of outside players, including Rwanda, Uganda, Israel, Japan, China, and the United States battle one another for control of the mineral’s extraction and export.
The Rwanda Mines, Petroleum, and Gas Board signed a deal in 2017 with a major Japanese rare earth extraction firm for the exploration and mining of rare earths, as well as tungsten, in Rwanda. However, Rwandan President Paul Kagame is known to have backed fellow Tutsi rebels in the DRC, who exploit rare earth mines in South and North Kivu provinces and send the stolen minerals to Rwanda. There have been attempts to curtail the trade in “conflict minerals” in the Great Lakes region of Africa, but they have all come to no avail.
Currently, US and Chinese firms are waging a political and economic influence “war” for access to lithium, cassiterite, and cobalt reserves in the DRC.
Next door to the DRC, in civil war-ravaged Burundi, there was a discovery of exceptionally high-grade “main vein” of rare earth minerals in 2017. Burundi, which was once a German colony, saw Germany’s ThyssenKrupp move in to exploit the mineral resources. ThyssenKrupp also began building a processing plant in Burundi. The German government has come under attack from human rights groups that accuse it of backing the German mining venture, known as the Gakara Project, even though Burundi’s president, President Pierre Nkurunziza, was dubiously elected to a third term in office. German business groups have countered with the argument that if Germany was not mining Burundi’s rare earths, China would be doing so.
The French government is not only concentrating its rare earth mining activities in its traditional Francophone sphere of influence in Africa – Morocco, Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar, Guinea – but further afield, including the pursuit of joint venture mining activities in Kazakhstan.
In the United States, the Pentagon has recognized the military importance of rare earths. The Defense Logistic Agency's Strategic Materials department is tasked to ensure a continued supply of rare earths to US defense contractors. The US Energy Department tracks rare earth discoveries and mining operations around the world, thanks to a constant infusion of intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. The Trump administration has moved to open US federal wildlife areas, national parks, and other lands to exploration and mining of rare earths to private companies, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and Native American tribal governments.
In a rush to lessen dependence on Chinese exports of rare earths, which have, in any event, been restricted by Beijing, nations and companies around the world have launched a cut-throat competition to gain leverage over the rare earth market. What peaks the interest of gatherers of economic intelligence are references in email, video conferences, phone calls, faxes, and financial documents to such terms as europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, samarium, and other rare earths.
As the world becomes more dependent on high-tech and an “Internet of things,” consisting of computers, mobile phones, appliances, televisions, security systems, automobiles, etc., the economic war for control of rare earth minerals will increase. There is the extreme possibility that economic warfare could turn into shooting wars, as has already been the case in the DRC.