America’s new reality: the growing national security threat from China

November 8, 2023 3:00 am

U.S. Capitol. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States was taken by surprise. But now, yet again, beyond the horizon of attention, there is a growing menace to U.S. national security from overseas.

This time the danger comes from China. We need to recognize the emerging reality that China’s global grip over rare minerals and metals needed in the production of precision-guided artillery shells, missile-defense systems, nighttime goggles and other critically important weapons represents a serious threat to the United States — and to the world community, especially Israel and Ukraine.

In the latest salvo in its escalating trade war with the United States, China has let it be known it will now use its mineral advantage to limit how much battery metal it exports, potentially blocking not only U.S. arms production but the U.S. manufacture of batteries for electric cars and the modernization of the nation’s electricity grid.

China’s Ministry of Commerce recently announced it would require foreign companies to apply for permits to receive shipments of raw and synthetic graphite, one of the key battery metals. China supplies 100% of the graphite used in the United States. Earlier, Chinese officials limited the export of two minerals — gallium and germanium — used for military technologies, virtually cutting off all access to those supplies.

Will lithium and cobalt be next? Or copper? Each laser-guided 155 mm caliber artillery shell — known as a copperhead — is made largely from copper. Tens of thousands of these shells — which target tanks and howitzers and are essential weapons of modern warfare — have been sent to Israel and Ukraine.

But Chinese firms, subsidized by Beijing, dominate the global extraction and processing of key metals and minerals. An EV battery typically weighs about 1,000 pounds, including about 25 pounds of lithium, 110 pounds of graphite and 90 pounds of copper. The International Energy Agency estimates that world demand for graphite and copper will grow 10 times by 2030. As the world’s principal source of these metals, China is now in a position to decide who gets the materials first and at what price. Or who doesn’t get any.

Not since the United States was hit with an economy-crushing oil embargo by petroleum producers in the 1970s has America been so vulnerable to a foreign supplier of a critical commodity. China is using this dependence as a powerful new tool to seize and deploy for its political and military agenda.

If nothing is done about it, the results of this dependence will have far-reaching consequences for U.S. national security. Consider the importance of rare earth minerals, which are indispensable to a modern military and used in many critical weapons systems, including precision-guided munitions, smart bombs, lasers, radar, sonar, night vision systems, bulletproof vests, jet engines and armored vehicles. The United States has one rare earth mine. China is our biggest supplier.

If there is one thing Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree on these days, it is that the rise of China needs to be checked. For that to happen, however, the federal government will need to streamline the mine permitting process so that it doesn’t take 20 years or more to open a new mine.

Congress has approved and President Joe Biden has signed into law regulatory reforms that would speed up the permitting process, but they have yet to be implemented. Without real action on regulatory reform that eliminates some of the key problems plaguing domestic mining, there will be no progress.

Will we have to wait for another national emergency like Pearl Harbor before any meaningful action is taken?

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Barry Butterfield
Barry Butterfield

Barry Butterfield is a civil engineer who worked in the public and private sector for over 40 years. He has done energy-related projects in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and Connecticut. He also worked on two of Nebraska’s more controversial projects, including the Central Interstate Compact Low-Level Radioactive Waste facility near Butte, Nebraska, and the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also done extensive environmental analysis on freight rail projects in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Kansas. He has published papers for the American Nuclear Society and Energy Research and Social Sciences, and is an emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.