Posted by on May 10, 2019 8:29 pm
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By Daniel McGroarty

TES GeoPolicy Editor


“A fight between the United States and China is brewing over 5G and the question of who can be trusted to control the world’s wireless infrastructure.  But scant attention is being paid to an issue of arguably greater importance to the future of the world’s economy and security:  China’s control of the raw materials necessary to the digital economy.”


That’s the fire-cracker start to Mining the Future, a new study by Foreign Policy’s FP Analytics division (subscription required).  It outlines how “Chinese firms have locked up supplies of these [strategic] minerals and metals with a combination of state-directed investment and state-backed capital, making long-term strategic plays, sometimes at a loss.”


As for targets, it’s an alphabet soup of elements:  antimony, cadmium, cobalt, gallium, graphite (and graphene), indium, lithium, molybdenum, niobium, the platinum group metals, the rare earths, tantalum, tellurium, tungsten, and vanadium – more than one-third of the naturally-occurring elements on the Periodic Table, all of them integral to renewable energy, next-gen IT, and defense applications.


If this sounds like a campaign, maybe that’s because, as the FP notes, “China’s 13th Five-Year Plan declared 2016-2020 a ‘decisive battle period’ for the non-ferrous metal industry….”  In other words, the battle’s almost over, and we’re just now hearing about it.


(For this TES Editor, who wrote a decade ago about the War for the Periodic Table, it’s “deja vu all over again” — and a source of frustration that neither in the U.S. nor among our industrial democratic allies has this battle been joined.)


Can you lose a war you never fought?  That’s a conundrum for Confucius.  But Sun Tzu has a ready answer, suggesting that you can certainly win:  “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”


Daniel McGroarty, TES editor of GeoPolicy, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense.