China says it is to abandon the large-scale mining of rare earths. The announcement was made by Su Bo, vice-minister of industry and information technology at an industry conference in Xiamen. The rationale is the continued promotion of more sustainable production. Coming as it does shortly after a joint WTO complaint was filed against China by the U.S., the EU and Japan over Beijing’s rare-earths export restrictions, this Bystander’s first take is that there is a large slice of trade politics to the vice-minister’s words.
Last September, Chinese mining officials said that three of the eight leading rare earth producing counties would stop production by the end of the year, citing resource depletion and the environmentally despoiling nature of rare-earth mining. Two years ago, Beijing ceased issuing new licenses for rare-earth prospecting and mining, announced tougher environmental standards for rare-earth production, and started a crackdown on illegal mines. Production has been capped at 93,800 tonnes and exports at 30,184 tonnes. How far Su’s announcement goes beyond all this is unclear at this point.
China, which produces 90% of the world’s supply of rare earths, has rejected the WTO complaint. It has also dismissed claims by Western trade officials that Beijing is using environmental concerns to mask its true motive: to protect China’s industrial base by making Western and Japanese companies that use the minerals to manufacture high-tech, military and green technologies, need to be in China to gain access to uninterrupted and cheap supplies of them.