Due to an ongoing health crisis in the family, blogging will be 'on and off' as time and circumstances permit for the foreseeable future. I also beg your indulgence if I am slow in responding to emails. New posts will appear below this notice.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rare and Foolish

Last month a Chinese trawler operating in Japanese-controlled waters collided with two vessels of Japan’s Coast Guard. Japan detained the trawler’s captain; China responded by cutting off Japan’s access to crucial raw materials.

And there was nowhere else to turn: China accounts for 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, minerals that play an essential role in many high-technology products, including military equipment. Sure enough, Japan soon let the captain go.

I don’t know about you, but I find this story deeply disturbing, both for what it says about China and what it says about us. On one side, the affair highlights the fecklessness of U.S. policy makers, who did nothing while an unreliable regime acquired a stranglehold on key materials. On the other side, the incident shows a Chinese government that is dangerously trigger-happy, willing to wage economic warfare on the slightest provocation.

Some background: The rare earths are elements whose unique properties play a crucial role in applications ranging from hybrid motors to fiber optics. Until the mid-1980s the United States dominated production, but then China moved in.

“There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China,” declared Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic transformation, in 1992. Indeed, China has about a third of the world’s rare earth deposits. This relative abundance, combined with low extraction and processing costs — reflecting both low wages and weak environmental standards — allowed China’s producers to undercut the U.S. industry.

You really have to wonder why nobody raised an alarm while this was happening, if only on national security grounds. But policy makers simply stood by as the U.S. rare earth industry shut down. In at least one case, in 2003 — a time when, if you believed the Bush administration, considerations of national security governed every aspect of U.S. policy — the Chinese literally packed up all the equipment in a U.S. production facility and shipped it to China.
Read the rest here.

I rarely agree with Dr. Krugman about anything. If he told me it was sunny and 75 out I would grab an umbrella and my over-coat. That said I think he nailed this one.

1 comment:

M. Jordan Lichens said...

I was shocked when I got to the bottom of your post to see that Paul Krugman wrote an essay that didn't rely on his fiat or say something inane like, "Debt doesn't matter!" This was a good point and something for everyone to take notice of.