By Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor
COVID-19: It’s all we talk about, on the cable news, and in our 6-foot socially-distanced prison walks around our silent neighborhoods. And in nearly every conversation comes the intellectual shrug, “who could have seen this coming?” A single phrase that neatly absolves governments and experts alike of any responsibility of predicting the pandemic and, if not being able to stop it, at least cushioning its blow. We even have a name for it (credit Nassim Nicholas Taleb): A Black Swan – the quintessential case of something never seen before.
Except for the fact that some of us did see this coming, whether it’s Bill Gates in his 2015 TED talk, or the unnamed author of the 2008 U.S. Government Intelligence Report envisioning the World of 2025, which includes a section called “Potential Emergence of a Global Pandemic”: “If a pandemic disease emerges, it probably will first occur in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China and Southeast Asia, where human populations live in close proximity to livestock.”
So if Black Swan is a misnomer, what is it that’s got us locked in our homes, wearing gloves and masks? Call it a Red Swan, given COVID’s point of origin, whether it seeped out on the sleeve of a lab tech at the Wuhan Virology Lab or jumped to a human host off a butcher’s hook at the Wuhan wet market.
But is it unfair to engage in so much 20-20 hindsight? After all, who could see COVID coming?
Well, we did. We — as in nodes within the U.S. Government tasked with tracking critical infrastructure on a global scale, literally maintaining a list of critical materials and capabilities, wherever they may be around the globe.
How do we know? It’s an interesting story, with a classified document and a cloak-and-dagger tale of how it came to light. It starts with Julian Assange, the famed Wikileaker. In early 2010, his motives nefarious and his means indiscriminate, he spilled out a torrent of U.S. Government diplomatic cables – ultimately 251,000 in all.
Among the documents, a cable sent by the U.S. State Department, providing a fleeting inside-look at something called the “Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative.”
While the document’s State Department senders designated the cable “SECRET/NOFORN” (no foreign nationals) and marked it for de-classification in 2019, Wikileaks made it public a decade ahead of schedule, revealing an intriguing list of “Critical Infrastructure/Key Resources” outside of the U.S. “whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.”
What’s on the no-longer-Secret U.S. Government list?
Under the heading for China: “Polypropylene Filter Material for N-95 Masks”
…Precisely the ones the federal government and states are scrambling to source right now. That’s right: The U.S. Government knew in 2009 that N-95 masks were critical, came from China… And did nothing about it.
But there’s more – and it goes to the broader supply-chain dependence on China that has only deepened in the past decade. The classified list includes a series of Chinese mines deemed critical:
Rare Earth Minerals/Elements
Tin Mine and Plant
Tungsten – Mine and Plant”
Six Chinese mines, understood in 2009 to be critical to U.S. national security, producing essential materials needed for technology applications ranging from aluminum and steel production, uranium processing, EV batteries and flat-panel displays to aerospace and missile guidance systems, infrared imaging, fiber optics, lasers, advanced airframes, body armor and armor plate. In short, just about every major U.S. advanced manufacturing sector as well as 21stCentury weapons platforms.
Why would Chinese production of these six materials be a matter of U.S. national security?
Because at the time, for these six materials the U.S. was 100% import-dependent – producing precisely zero – for fluorspar, graphite and rare earths, 90% dependent for germanium, 80% for tin and 63% for tungsten. In the cases of fluorspar, graphite, rare earths and tungsten, China was the world’s leading producer, and was a Top 3 producer for germanium and tin.
And today, 10 years after that highly-classified warning?
The U.S. remains 100% dependent for fluorspar, graphite and rare earths. China remains the world’s top supplier. And while the dependency has eased a bit for germanium, tin and tungsten, the U.S. remains more than 50% import dependent for each, while China’s role as global provider stands unchanged.
And this, despite the fact that the U.S. hosts known resources for all six, but simply fails to make mining, refining and recovering them a policy priority.
As a warning unheeded, the cable makes for interesting reading in light of today’s COVID pandemic – and as U.S. policymakers embark on a rolling series of multi-trillion dollar spending bills, the next of which will include infrastructure projects.
At issue is not just one but three layers of risk: Maybe the metals and minerals produced by the Chinese mines will be withheld in time of conflict, as Beijing seeks to leverage access for American concessions. Maybe the metals and minerals will soon be prioritized for internal Chinese consumption, under its Made in China 2025 program to drive Chinese technology dominance, with little left for export to the U.S. or elsewhere.
Or maybe – as the leaked cable presciently notes – the Chinese mines will be disrupted by a pandemic, slamming on the supply chain brakes for a U.S. economy dependent on critical materials that go from arriving “just in time” to “not at all.”
In any case, the warning could hardly be more clear. The U.S. has a choice: It can take immediate steps to reduce its dangerous dependency on a Chinese supply chain for critical technology metals. Or we can hope COVID 2.0 will not disrupt supply in a second global shut-down – or that Beijing won’t one day decide to curtail access to these critical materials in time of crisis.
But here’s one thing we can no longer do: If an act of nature or of man cuts off U.S. access to vital technology materials, we can’t claim to be surprised by the appearance of a Red Swan. We’ve seen it coming.
Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources. The views expressed here are his own.