Rare earth case reveals US hypocrisy

Updated: 2012-03-15 08:06

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Rare earth case reveals US hypocrisyUS President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that the United States, joined by Japan and the European Union, has filed complaints with the World Trade Organization over China's rare earth export quotas.

He said this as an effort to give "American workers and American businesses a fair shot in the global economy".

His words, however, imply that he does not really care about the environmental degradation caused by China's disorderly and excessive mining of rare earth materials, as long as US workers and businesses can profit from China's cheap supply.

This is shocking for a president who likes to portray himself as pro-environment when he fights Republican presidential candidates over clean energy issues, or when he tried to restore the US' leadership role at the UN Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen, in December 2009.

China's new regulations on rare earth manufacturing and exports, which were introduced a few years ago, are based on the sound rationale of sustainable growth and environmental protection.

With only a third of the world's rare earth deposits, China now produces over 90 percent of the global rare earth minerals, a group of 17 elements that are widely used in high-tech products such as solar panels, batteries for electric cars and cell phones.

The lack of strong regulations in the past has posed grave dangers to the country and its people by depleting natural resources and destroying the environment. For example, rare earth mining has polluted drinking water in regions along some waterways linked to rare earth mines.

Experts believe it will cost tens of billions of dollars to repair the ecosystems damaged by rampant rare earth mining over the past decades. And American, Japanese and European businesses are unlikely to foot the bill.

On the other hand, countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, which used to produce rare earth minerals, stopped such manufacturing a decade ago due to the environmental concerns and the higher cost compared with Chinese exports.

When talking about China's purchase of raw materials from Africa and Latin America, many people in the US and Europe like to use the word "grabbing resources" or even "colonialism", but none of these people use similar words to describe the West's exploitation of China's cheap rare earth minerals.

This is just hypocrisy.

According to the US Geological Survey, there are about 13 million metric tons of rare earth deposits in the US. Instead of buying from China, Obama should propose tapping the US' own deposits. Such a move would not only enable the US to share the responsibility for the supply of rare earth materials, it would also create jobs for Americans, the single most powerful weapon Obama needs to beat a Republican candidate in November's election.

In filing the WTO case, Obama has to convince people why China should deplete its resources and disregard environmental and public health concerns, issues that are addressed prominently both in China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) and the recent World Report on China.

A win for the US, Japan and the EU in the WTO case would be a loss for the global environmental cause.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail: chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 03/15/2012 page9)