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Quad leaders unite to weaken Chinese dominance over rare-earth minerals

Morrison, Biden, Modi and Suga have agreed to map out supply chains for key minerals and products – such as semiconductors – to better understand the nations’ technological vulnerabilities.

China accounts for the majority of the global production of rare-earth minerals, including palladium and lithium, raising alarm that the rising superpower could block access to crucial consumer and defence technologies as part of a trade war with its strategic rivals.

An iPhone, for example, contains an estimated eight different rare-earth minerals, which are also integral components of high-tech weaponry such as fighter jets and guided cruise missiles.

Australia has the world’s sixth-largest reserves of rare-earth minerals, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, but they currently remain largely untapped with only two mines producing them. The largest by far is a mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia, owned by the Lynas Corporation.

In February the US Defence Department announced it had awarded Lynas a contract to develop a rare-earth processing facility in Texas.

Lyna’s rare earths mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia.

Lyna’s rare earths mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia.Credit:Trevor Collens

The Morrison government believes the fellow Quad nations represent potentially lucrative export markets for Australian-sourced minerals such as lithium given their increasing concern about China’s reliability.

Rare earths were also a focus for Morrison during his previous visit to Washington in 2019 with then -president Donald Trump.

The leaders are expected to say that “resilient, diverse and secure technology supply chains for hardware, software, and services” are vital to their shared national interests.

Specifically, the four nations will “launch a joint initiative to map capacity, identify vulnerabilities and bolster supply chain security for semiconductors and their vital components”.

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A global shortage in semiconductor chips is driving up the prices of cars and other electronic goods such as laptops and televisions, leading the Biden administration to make boosting supply and reducing dependence on China one of its top economic priorities.

The leaders will also seek to reboot their pledge to donate 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to needy nations in the Indo-Pacific by the end of next year.

The plan, announced at a virtual summit in March, ran into difficulty after the surge of the Delta variant in India earlier this year.

India will serve as the vaccine manufacturing hub for the Quad’s vaccine diplomacy initiative, but production was diverted to meet local demand when India’s case numbers spiralled out of control.

The Quad nations will launch a new online map to create transparency around the initiative that will track where the donated doses are going and how many have been distributed.

Sources said the Chinese government has been pressuring nations in Asia not to accept donations from the Quad and instead rely on its own exports of the Sinovac vaccine.

Why so rare?

  • Australia is the world’s No.2 producer, making up 13 per cent of global output.
  • Mined in Mount Weld and Browns Range, WA; Nolans, NT.
  • Used in: speakers, wind turbines, hybrid cars and magnets.
  • Rare earths are not that rare: A family of 17 obscure minerals found near the bottom of the periodic table, they occur everywhere in the earth’s crust and in greater amounts than many other elements. Even the rarest of rare earth materials, thulium, is more plentiful than gold.
  • Rare earths including cerium, dysprosium, erbium, neo-dymium, praseodymium, neodymium, scandium, cerium, lanthanumand lutetium are rare in the sense they are sprinkled all over the planet in very small concentrations.

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