China locks on to F-35 fighter jets in high-tech war with US

Beijing could use a rare-earth ban to hit the US defence industry as tech conflict rumbles on

China could block exports of rare earth minerals to the United States in a move that would hit the defense industry and stall the production of F-35 fighter jets.

Last month, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology rolled out draft controls on the production and export of 17 rare earth minerals in China.

The country controls about 80% of the global supply, which is vital for high-tech products and crucial for state-of-the-art weapons such as the F-35.

“The government wants to know if the US may have trouble making F-35 fighter jets if China imposes an export ban,” the Financial Times reported on Tuesday, quoting a Chinese government adviser. 

The facts:

  • China controls about four-fifths of global rare earth refining capacity.
  • Mining the minerals has thrown up a range of environmental issues.
  • An export ban by China on the 17 rare earths could hit the US military complex.
  • It would also leave Beijing open to retaliation from Washington, such as blocking all US technology and software to the world’s second-largest economy.
  • That would seriously jeopardize semiconductor supplies, the building blocks of the high-tech industry.
  • China is also likely to become the first country in the world to start mining seabed rare earths.

What was said: Last year, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress discussed export controls on strategic materials, such as rare earths. It took place after Washington launched a raft of measures to starve China of US high-tech components and software. “China may take countermeasures against any country that abuses export-control measures and poses a threat to China’s national security and interests, according to [discussions about the] law,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported at the time.

Reaction to the news: US defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, the company behind the F-35 fighter jet, would be particularly vulnerable to a rare-earth ban. It would also have an impact on the next generation of missile production. But it might not be the game-changer that Beijing is banking on. “The use of rare earths is limited, and so every country has its safe level of reserves, in particular, for military use. For technical applications, Japan, in particular, has found ways to replace rare earths. So, there are technological ways to overcome [a shortage],” Liu Meng-chun, the director of the Chung-Hua Institution of Economic Research’s mainland China division in Taiwan, said.

China Factor comment: A rare-earth ban is a trump card that Beijing would be loathed to play. But that does not mean that China would not use it if the US technology stranglehold started to curtail the nation’s development by undermining its military program.