A shooting war between the U.S. and China seems far-fetched at the moment, but could be plausible once the Pentagon reduces its rare earth mineral exposure on the Asian country and sets up new processing facilities in Australia.
Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters Monday that she held meetings with Australian counterparts about "whether or not we could work with Australia to stand up a facility that would take care of our DoD needs, but a variety of other international needs as well."
Lord's meeting comes after a series of threats made by the Chinese to block rare earth mineral exports to the U.S., about 17 minerals in total, mostly used in fifth-generation fighter jets, M1 Abrams tank armor, radars, lasers, and engines.
Based on what I know, China is seriously considering restricting rare earth exports to the US. China may also take other countermeasures in the future.— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) May 28, 2019
What irks Washington and the neocon warmongers in the White House is that China controls 80% of the global processing capacity of rare earth minerals.
"We're concerned about any fragility in the supply chain and especially where an adversary controls the supply," Lord told reporters at a Washington event on Monday.
She said the Pentagon is reviewing several options to partner on rare earth projects, adding "one of the highest potential avenues is to work with Australia."
An Australian Defence spokeswoman told Reuters that discussions with the U.S. on rare earth minerals started in 2018 were continuing:
"Continuity and guarantee of supply of rare earths and critical minerals is vital to a range of sectors, including defense. Cooperation with international partners is integral to this effort," the spokeswoman said.
To derisk and decrease reliance on China, the Pentagon also held talks with Canada and countries within Africa to develop rare earth reserves.
The Pentagon emphasized this threat with the October 2018 review of the defense-industrial base and its complex supply chains around the world:
"China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials [rare earth minerals] and technologies deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security; a challenge shared by key allies such as Germany and Australia," the report read.
Last month, President Trump directed the Pentagon to develop new ways in acquiring magnets made from rare earth minerals, suggesting that reliance on China or other countries could one-day result in declining stockpiles.
And when the Pentagon can fully source its rare earth minerals from Australia, which would ultimately reduce its China exposure to zero, that will be the moment when war planners in Washington might feel comfortable in waging a shooting war against China in the South China Sea.
Securing supply chains of the most critical materials necessary for warfare are the first steps in preparing for conflict. The countdown has begun.