SHANGHAI—China said it hasn’t limited export of rare-earth elements to Japan, denying a report that it had halted exports of the materials to its neighbor as retaliation in a territorial dispute.
“China doesn’t block rare earth exports to Japan,” Chen Rongkai, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, said Thursday.
In the race to build hybrid cars and wind turbines to feed growing demand for green technology, China has one clear advantage: it holds the world’s largest reserves of rare earth metals and dominates global production.
The New York Times, citing industry officials, reported Thursday that Chinese customs officials had blocked shipments of the minerals to Japan in response to Japan’s detention on Sept. 7 of a Chinese fishing boat captain, whose trawler collided Japanese patrol vessels near islands both countries claim. China produces well over 90% of the world’s output of rare-earth elements, which are critical to making certain technology products like batteries for electric cars. The report followed a brief article in Industrial Minerals, a trade magazine, which cited a Japanese trader it didn’t name also claiming China had barred exports of the materials to Japan.
Most government and business offices were closed in both China and Japan for holidays on Thursday. Several industry executives and government officials in Japan and China said they had seen no evidence of such a ban in the rare-earth trade—although some said they had heard rumors or reports of such a move. Industry participants said there are broader concerns about global supply of rare-earth elements after Beijing earlier this year issued sharply reduced export quotas for the materials that are now nearly exhausted.
“The Japanese government hasn’t been informed” of any Chinese ban on rare-earth materials, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said. An official in Tokyo at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also said the Japanese government hasn’t received any notice from the Chinese government on a ban and is “now trying to confirm” if there is anything to the reported embargo. Another Japanese economic official, who watches China closely, said his office would flash a “red alert” if evidence were found to support the reports, but that so far they hadn’t found any such evidence.
A fourth official said Japanese trade officials have received some reports from Japanese trading companies that it has become “more difficult” in recent days to arrange rare-earth shipments to Japan, and some have not taken place as scheduled.” He wasn’t sure when the difficulties began or what might have caused them, though he said they could have something to do with the diplomatic spat.
An executive at a Japanese importer of rare-earth elements said his company has seen no disruption in its imports from China. “So far, nothing has changed,” he said. “We’ve heard rumors this past one or two days” about a possible cut-off, but as of Thursday afternoon “we haven’t been able to confirm them.”
A government official in Baotou, a city in China’s Inner Mongolia region that is a major mining center and headquarters of Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech Co., said he hadn’t heard of any ban on exports to Japan. Blocking exports would violate World Trade Organization rules, the official said, and “I don’t think China [would] to do this.”
An executive at a major European buyer of rare earths said he has seen no supply disruption at all to its intake and hasn’t heard from any Japanese companies wanting to purchase supply.
Jeff Green, a U.S. industry consultant who runs J.A. Green & Co., said by email that over the past 24 hours “numerous sources in Japan” have told him they have experienced a halt in rare-earth shipments, possibly due to the overall yearly quota.
Any ban on rare-earth shipments to Japan would mark a startling escalation of the territorial dispute, one that would not only upset Japan but also risk angering the U.S. and other countries and aligning them against China for using its global commercial clout in a bilateral political dispute. Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have denounced the captain’s arrest and threatened unspecified actions in response if Tokyo doesn’t release him, but it has so far limited retaliatory efforts to suspending political and cultural exchanges trying to curtail tourism.
China’s decision over the past year to impose global export quotas on rare- earth elements has caused worry among foreign industry executives and government officials for months. China’s Commerce Ministry said total exports for the year would be capped at just under 30,300 metric tons, down 40% from last year. Only 7,976 tons of that were allocated for the second half of this year, and experts say much of that has already been shipped. As the near-monopoly producer of the 17 rare-earth elements, which share certain chemical properties and are critical to manufacturing high-tech magnets, night-vision goggles and wind turbines, China is at least temporarily in a powerful position to dictate trade in rare earths. High-tech Japan is the world’s biggest importer of rare-earth minerals.
Over the past year, as Beijing has tightened export quotas on rare-earth elements—quotas that apply globally rather than to particular nations-high level delegations from the U.S., Germany, and Japan have implored Beijing to recognize how critical they consider sustained supply.
Mr. Wen responded to such concerns expressed by a visiting Japanese delegation led by former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada last month by pledging China would not halt exports.
Chinese officials have said the tighter export limits this year are motivated by environmental concerns. Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said during the meeting with Mr. Okada that “mass-extraction of rare earth will cause great damage to the environment; that’s why China has tightened controls over rare-earth production, exploration and trade.”
By the end of August, China had exported some 28,500 metric tons of rare earth to customers around the world in 2010, the vast bulk of the 30,300 metric tons it set as the full-year quota, according to an executive at a foreign rare-earth producer who cited Chinese statistics but who asked not to be identified.
“The fact that we’re in mid-September, it would be reasonable to assume the remaining [about] 2,000 tons has been consumed,” according to the person.
Rare-earth elements include the relatively common cerium, used in pollution-control equipment, and terbium, used in energy efficient light bulbs, as well as the truly rare thulium, which has applications in x-ray devices.
Many of the elements are more abundant than the label suggests. The U.S. has around 13 million tons of reserves in rare earth oxides, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, against 36 million tons in China.
Yet, no one is currently producing most rare-earth minerals in the U.S., while Chinese output is around 120,000 tons annually. The U.S.’s best hope is a Mountain Pass, Calif., mine that closed in 2002 and is now being redeveloped by Colorado-based Molycorp Inc., one of several companies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere racing to exploit concerns about the unbalanced global supply.
Global trade in the elements is nevertheless small: China’s annual production weighs less than a single Capesize vessel.
Some rare-earth industry officials said they believed it possible that China might temporarily cut off exports to Japan. But they said it would pose little immediate threat to global supplies, even though it might underpin already rising prices for rare earths as the world economy recovers and demand for products like iPods and electric cars grow.
Dudley Kingsnorth, a known Australia-based industry consultant who runs Industrial Minerals Company of Australia, said he had heard from a Japanese trading firm that he declined to name that China was “informally” halting trade in rare earths. If there were temporary disruption, he said the immediate fallout would be limited, noting many users are sitting on six months or more of stockpiles, which rose during the global recession.
Yet, even the hint of a politicized reduction in exports from China, said Mr. Kingsnorth, “raises real alarm bells about long term security of supply and will force companies to look at diversity of supply.”
That warning was echoed elsewhere in an industry that has struggled to make the economics of rare earth mineral production work in the short term, despite widespread agreement long term reasons dictate improved production.
“It is precisely this type of vulnerability in the overall rare earths supply chain [for geopolitical reasons and others], that makes it important for Japan and other countries to diversify their supply chains for rare earths,” Gareth Hatch, founding principal of Illinois-based Technology Metals Research LLC said by email.