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Today the BBC reports on a case raised by the United States against China in the matter of rare earth controls. You can find it here.

This is Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia between this single location and the mud flats of Guangdong Province (which is where I live) - 95% of all the world's rare earth minerals are extracted. This comes at a huge price to the natural environment as you can see from this picture.

What they don’t tell you in the article and what should be key to understanding this issue is this – the United States has plenty of rare earth minerals lying around in the ground. In fact until a few years ago the United States was a major producer of rare earth – right up until the point that it realized that not only could the job be done for less in China, but that extraction is indeed environmentally damaging and thus the Chinese environment could pay the price of American product development.

Now that China has worked this out, and no longer needs to depend on absolute destruction of the environment for cash – it’s not playing the game anymore. The Americans are of course livid about this. They closed their mines on the understanding that the Chinese would continue to take their hit for them – and now that rare earths are an essential part of high-tech industry, it’s going to take a few years to reopen them.

Rather than viewing this as a tax on their exploitation of the Chinese, they’re suing instead. And the Europeans and Japanese can’t be smug about this – because they’ve joined in too.

Rare earths make for some pretty compounds. There are 17 of them all told and most are as common as any other element lying around, though they are hard to extract in pure form (which is why they are considered "rare" - it took a long time to get at them for early chemists). And yes - you use rare earth metals in your day to day life - anything that has a speaker in it, will contain a rare earth mineral in the magnet (for a small example).

This should be salutary lesson in not handing over control of a key part of your industrial process to economic competitors in exchange for being able to crap on their doorstep. But it won’t be – it’ll be another reason to pillory the “evil” Chinese rather than admitting that there might just be a lot at fault in the way the West does business.

Finally it’s worth noting that rare earths generally aren’t in the slightest bit rare – and can be found all over the world. So it’s not like the Chinese are hogging an unavailable resource – they’re just encouraging us to do our own dirty work for a change.