11/05/2010, 00.00
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Beijing confirms cuts in rare earth exports next year

Chinese authorities announce lower exports citing environmental and supply reasons. World manufactures are concerned by the move; they call on G20 leaders to address the issue. It will take years for producers outside of China to fill the gap.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China will maintain its exports of rare earth minerals next year, China’s Trade Minister Chen Deming said on Friday. Rare earth metals are essential to electronics, high tech materials, clean energy, and fibre optics for transmission, as well as military radar and missile-guidance systems.

“The rare earth issue should not be made political. China will maintain its existing rare earth exports next year," Chen said. He did not say however what he meant by “existing” rare earth exports since Beijing has already reduced exports by 40 per cent this year over last. In July alone, it reduced its exports by 72 per cent. In addition, Trade Ministry spokesman Yao Jian announced that China would reduce export quotas for rare earth minerals next year, albeit “only by a small amount”.

China controls 36 per cent of known reserves of this group of 17 metals, which posses certain magnetic, luminescent and other properties. For decades, it has met 97 per cent of world demand, selling at low prices, with the net effect of driving out of business mining operations in other countries.

Beijing’s sudden decision to cut back this year has led to fears that it might be trying to use its dominant position to favour Chinese companies. The impression was not helped by its decision to cut exports to Japan during its recent row with its neighbour over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.

A worldwide coalition of nearly 40 business associations, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures, the Consumer Electronics Association, Business Europe and others, has asked leaders of the world’s largest economies who will meet at the next G20 summit in Seoul to address the issue as a top priority. Many are concerned that the loss of supplies on the short run could disrupt production, block technological innovation and undermine the development of cleaner energy.

Reductions in supplies have already pushed up rare earth prices seven times in the past six months. This has already spurred exploration and development of new sites.

The United States holds 13 per cent of known reserves, and the Pentagon expects supplies to improve by 2013 once rare earth mines outside China become operational.

Known reserves for these rare minerals vary in quantity, from half a tonne in the case of the rarest to thousands of tonnes in other cases like lanthanum and yttrium.

In 2008, China mined about 120,000 metric tons of rare earths, Chinese sources said.

A few milligrams can go into laser equipment whilst hybrid cars may need a few kilos. A regular computer will instead have on average an amount of rare earth metals worth a dollar to a dollar fifty US.

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