China in focus as West debates critical minerals challenge

The European Union in 2011 was among the first to compile a critical raw materials list.

Western powers will attend talks in Brussels next week on curbing China’s dominance of rare earths and other critical resources and EU officials will present their vision to create entire green supply chains.

The talks, on Nov. 19, have taken place annually for much of this decade, bringing together diplomats and industry representatives from the European Union, Japan and United States.

They have yet to weaken China’s power, especially over rare earths, and global trade tensions aggravate the problem.

But the European hosts are persevering. As net importers of most minerals, the European Union in 2011 was among the first to compile a critical raw materials list.

As net importers of most minerals, the European Union in 2011 was among the first to compile a critical raw materials list

As battery minerals and consumer demands for sustainability have climbed the agenda, Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic says the EU strategy is to support development of entire supply chains, where possible on EU territory, based on ethical production.

Economic success relies on progress.

The European Commission estimates the EU battery market will be worth up to 250 billion euros ($275.5 billion) annually from 2025.

“The position of the West is precarious,” Simon Moores, managing director at consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said. “These supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow.”

Minerals are deemed critical because of their economic importance, scarcity and the risk of supply disruption, criteria that vary from country to country.

But all governments judge rare earths – a group of 17 elements with electronic and magnetic properties – key because of their role in high-tech, low-emission economies and defence.

The minerals are not rare, but processing them and finding them in sufficient concentrations is problematic.

While the West wrestled with trying to produce profitably, China increased output aggressively and then in 2010 imposed export quotas, causing a price surge.

A World Trade Organization (WTO) case in 2014 found against China, but its dominance continues, chiefly because it can ignore economic imperatives.

Michel Rademaker, a specialist at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands, said a solution is to accelerate production outside China.

He cited the Norra Karr rare earths deposit in Sweden, which could supply Europe’s needs for more than two decades.

That project is owned by Leading Edge Materials of Canada, which for the first time will be an observer nation at the talks, joined by Australia, which has previously been an observer. The mining nations present their skills and resources as a solution.

Leading Edge CEO Mark Saxon said the company was working to get approvals to develop the Swedish deposit. In Europe environmental standards can make that a long process.

Europe’s lack of mining “requires discussion as a priority,” he said.

($1 = 0.9074 euros)

(By Barbara Lewis; Editing by David Evans)

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