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What do F-35 Lightning II and iPhone 14 have in common?

Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II is single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft. It has been designed to perform in both air superiority and strike missions.

There are more than 800 F-35 aircraft in service today.

F-35 uses uses 920 pounds of rare earths per plane in its electronic warfare systems, targeting radars, and electric motors that move the plane’s rudders.

In 2010, Apple sold 60 million iPhones. In 2022 or only twelve years later, Apple sold 1.57 billion iPhones.

Apple iPhone (and all other smart phones and electronic components) also use rare earths.

According to Apple, "we use 100 percent recycled rare earth elements in all magnets, representing 99 percent of the total rare earth elements in the device."

While Apple needs to be recognized for a recent decision to recycle rare earths, the total amount of rare earths required to manufacture 1.57 billion iPhones has grown exponentially.

So rare earths are very important.

China accounts for 63 percent of world's rare earth mining, 85 percent of rare earth processing, and 92 percent of rare earth magnet production.

China's push to dominate the rare earth industry

It's not an accident.

China’s dominance in the rare earth industry is the result of decades of targeted industrial policies aimed at leapfrogging other nations.

China has demonstrated a willingness to leverage its influence in the global rare earth industry in pursuit of its political objectives. While several major countries have sought to limit their exposure to supply chain disruptions emanating from China, they nonetheless remain deeply reliant on Chinese rare earth exports.

Beijing’s most notable use of rare earths as a political tool came in 2010 amid a heated dispute with Tokyo. After Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the waters near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, China restricted rare earth exports to Japan for two months.

The move caused the average price of global rare earth imports to skyrocket from $9,461 per metric ton in 2009 to nearly $66,957 in 2011.

Many manufacturers in the US, Japan, and Europe were left struggling to afford supplies of rare earths, while China held a glut of supplies at home.

Could history repeat itself?

China is threatening an export ban on rare earth metals in response to the United States recent decision to impose restrictions on exports of high-end semiconductors to Beijing.

This is not the first time that China has considered such a ban, with rumors circulating since at least 2019 as well as formal threats in 2021.

Price of rare earths are likely to rise

If China makes good on its threats, the price of rare earth metals will undoubtedly rise. Even if the sanctions do not work to prevent the United States from gaining access to rare earth metals, they will likely lead to supply chain issues and rising costs.

The same is true if the United States start to process these metals domestically. This means higher prices for Western consumers — and that includes everything from smartphones to green energy.

Should Beijing turn the threat into reality, ramications will be felt globally.

In case you were interested

Each Virginia-class nuclear submarine in US Navy requires nearly 4.2 metric tons of rare earths.

Commodities ran, run, and will run the world

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