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State interference threatens China’s control of rare earth production

State planning limits on China’s production of rare earth elements is undermining the country’s dominance of the strategic sector, according to Chinese industry executives and analysts.

The production limits, enforced to limit environmental damage from rare earth mines and also keep prices high, are forcing Chinese manufacturers that depend on rare earths for a range of industry applications to turn to overseas suppliers, triggering a surge of imports from the US and Myanmar.

“Production quotas are hurting us financially,” an executive at China Northern Rare Earth Group High-Tech Co, the country’s largest producer, told the Financial Times. “It has also led to unstable supply of the resource that could put [Chinese] end users under stress. 

“We can’t achieve economies of scale when we are not free to produce,” the CNREG executive added. He said that his group’s profit margins were now lower than its overseas competitors even though it enjoyed a monopoly over certain rare earth elements.

The executives interviewed by the FT requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist party’s central committee, which is holding its annual plenum in Beijing, will approve the framework of the country’s next five-year plan to run from 2021 to 2025. The committee, comprised of the party’s 200 most senior officials, is expected to prioritise self-sufficiency in strategic sectors such as rare earths and semiconductors.

China hawks in the Trump administration want to deny Chinese companies access to leading technologies vital to semiconductor production, as well as reduce the outside world’s dependence on Chinese rare earths. Rare earth elements are a group of 17 minerals used in the manufacturing of everything from electronic products to electric vehicles and wind turbines.

“One of the biggest lessons for China’s economic reform is state planning does more harm than good,” the CNREG executive said. “Rare earths are no exception.” The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which determines China’s rare earths output quota, did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year China accounted for more than 60 per cent of global rare earths production. The US was the world’s second-largest producer, accounting for 12 per cent.

When China-US trade talks were on the verge of collapse in May 2019, Chinese president Xi Jinping toured southern Jiangxi province, a big production area for the country’s rare earths industry. Analysts said Mr Xi’s visit was intended to remind the US of China’s chokehold over the sector.

According to official data, the volume of China’s rare earth imports jumped 74 per cent in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2019. The import surge looks set to continue as Chinese consumers of rare earths, from smelting factories to magnet makers, race to place orders with overseas suppliers.

“Our days of rare earth self-sufficiency are gone,” said Du Shuaibing, an analyst at Baiinfo, a commodity consultancy in Beijing.

The supply crunch has been exacerbated by the Chinese economy’s rapid recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. An official at Minmetals Rare Earth Co, another industry leader, said that rising production by Chinese electric vehicle makers, whose output increased 32 per cent year on year in the third quarter, had contributed to soaring domestic demand for rare earths.

Beijing, however, only raised this year’s nationwide mining quota by 6 per cent to 140,000 tons — a record amount but still far from enough to meet demand. China’s rare earth consumption has consistently exceeded domestic output by more than 30 per cent over the past six years and analysts expect the gap to widen this year.

China’s rare earth mineral imports

“The designer of the quota system has a poor track record in predicting demand,” said an official at Gold Dragon Rare Earth Co, a producer in south-eastern Fujian Province.

China started setting output quotas for rare earths in 2007 to prevent over-mining that damaged the environment. The government also wanted to keep prices high for domestic producers.

A chamber of commerce in Baotou, an industrial centre in Inner Mongolia whose companies are big users of the minerals, said in a report last year that local magnet factories were running at less than 50 per cent capacity due in part to a lack of rare earths.

As a result, many Chinese companies that need rare earths have turned to the only rare earth miner in the US — Mountain Pass mine in California — as well suppliers in Myanmar. Mountain Pass mine is controlled by US investors but also sold a 10 per cent stake to a Chinese company and sends all of its output to China for processing.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in acquiring rare earth minerals from the US and Myanmar,” said a second executive at CNREG, referring to Beijing’s tense relations with Washington and local protests often generated by China-related industrial projects in Myanmar. “We can’t take either of them for granted.”

Mountain Pass and Myanmar suppliers accounted for 38 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively, of China’s rare earths imports last year.

Chinese mining executives argue Beijing should abandon the production quota system and let market forces determine how much rare earths they should produce, provided that environmental standards are met. CNREG has asked the Chinese government to begin by removing quotas for certain rare earth elements the country has rich supplies of, such as lanthanum and cerium.

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