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Everyone can stop worrying now. China's grip over the world's supply of rare-earth metals has weakened considerably — and the country can't hold the global economy hostage, as was once widely feared. Or at least so argues a new paper on the topic.
Back in 2010, China produced 97 percent of the world's rare earth metals, which are used in everything from the magnets in our headphones and wind turbines to the catalysts in our gasoline refineries. That same year, China began restricting exports as part of a political dispute with Japan. The global price for rare earths skyrocketed, and there was a fair bit of alarm in the US about how China's chokehold on rare earths threatened the economy and even national security.
Based on a resource assessment performed for McKenzie’s company Ucore by Aurora Geosciences, Bokan may contain mineral deposits worth $6.5 billion. That figure is not for uranium, though, but a group of elements called rare earths.
A key point here is that, despite their name, rare earth metals aren't actually that rare. At various points in the twentieth century, Brazil, India, the United States and South Africa were all major producers. It's just that, in the 1980s, China ramped up production massively, driving out competitors and cornering the market. (China could do this, in part, by going easy on environmental oversight of mining, which can be a horrifically dirty process.)
When China decided to restrict exports in 2010, that drove prices up and suddenly made it profitable for other countries to start boosting their own production again.