China’s state-run Global Times on Sunday gloated that a waiver from the U.S. government to take delivery on F-35 fighter jets exposed America’s “dependence on Chinese rare-earth products” and demonstrated that China can bring the U.S. military to heel whenever it wishes by choosing to “limit the export of such strategic resources to safeguard its national security.”
The Pentagon halted delivery of F-35s in early September because investigators found a magnet in the advanced warplane’s engines was manufactured with cobalt and samarium alloy sourced from China. The manufacturer of the component failed to complete the paperwork required to use Chinese materials in a Department of Defense (DOD) project.
Last Saturday, a month after the F-35s were put on hold, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante signed a waiver to allow deliveries to resume. LaPlante said he was satisfied the Chinese-made alloy posed no security risk, while timely receipt of the planes was a vital national security interest.
Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-35, and Honeywell, which makes the pump in which the cobalt and samarium alloy is used, both said alternative sourcing for the minerals has been secured and will be used in new components as of November. LaPlante’s waiver covers 126 aircraft that were already constructed when the alloy problem was identified.
The Global Times crowed that no matter what the Pentagon and its suppliers might say about finding alternative supplies, the F-35 incident proves the U.S. military is heavily dependent on China for rare earths and so are Western civilian production lines:
China has a leading edge in the middle- to downstream rare-earth magnet production, and the US attempt to remove China-origin alloy imports from military equipment is almost “a mission impossible” from both a short-term and long-term perspective, a manager of a state-owned rare-earth enterprise in Ganzhou, East China’s Jiangxi Province surnamed Yang, told the Global Times on Sunday.
“China is the only country in the world that has developed the ability to extract samarium and cobalt rare-earth metals, which means the middle product samarium oxide is almost 100 percent made in Chinese factories. We also account for over 70 percent of the final product samarium-cobalt rare-earth magnet. How can Washington take out Chinese rare-earth products from its jets in such a scenario?” Yang said.
According to Yang, China-made neodymium magnets – another main type of rare-earth magnets that are widely used in electric machinery for a host of electronic products – also represent 85 percent of the global share, another piece of evidence demonstrating China’s overwhelming position in the global rare earth industry.
The Chinese Communist paper suggested Beijing should “consider applying more strict export controls on rare-earth products,” especially if the U.S. government insists on using them for “military purposes that could harm China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests.”
This led to a fairly direct threat to compromise American supply chains if the U.S. interferes with China’s designs on Taiwan, as the Global Times ominously noted Lockheed Martin has already been “sanctioned by China for selling weapons and equipment to the island.”
China imposed sanctions on Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in February after the U.S. approved a $100 million sale of missile engineering and maintenance equipment to Taiwan. The equipment will be used to service Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries purchased by Taiwan.
Beijing denounced the sale and justified its sanctions using exactly the same language about taking “all necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty and security interests” as the Global Times used in its Sunday article.
China is growing increasingly aggressive about using its dominance of the rare earth market to compel obedience to its geopolitical agenda. In May, as tensions around Taiwan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated, Chinese Communist leaders threatened to cut off supplies of rare earths to the United States, Japan, and Australia.
Forbes suggested in May that China might want to play the rare earth card a little more carefully because Western nations could make the hefty investments necessary to end Chinese dominance if they really want to. The major reason they do not really want to is environmentalist hypocrisy.
“The fact is that rare earth elements are not very rare. They exist in many places on the globe. The only reason China presently has a near monopoly is because refining of these elements is very hard on the environment, and richer economies preferred to off load such environmental destruction to China where until very recently there was little concern,” Forbes explained.