Last month's unofficial Chinese ban on rare earth shipments to Japan following a row over the detention of a Chinese trawler captain has alerted Japan to scramble for the critical minerals elsewhere. Last week both Japan and Mongolia, a prospective rare earth belt, have decided to conduct test drilling on potential sites in Mongolia in a bid to make the country a major sourcing destination for rare earths for Japan.
Rare earths comprising of 17 minerals are widely used in rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars, advanced ceramics, magnets for cars, computers, DVD players, wind turbines, catalysts in cars and oil refineries, TVs, lasers, fibre optics, superconductors and space science.
While the US reduced mining for rare earth minerals in late 1970's owing to stringent disposal laws, China initiated mining projects at that point as it sat on one-third of world's rare minerals. As a result, China today supplies about 97 percent of the world's rare earth elements, and currently supplies about 96 percent of Japan's needs.
Although China claimed that it did not ban the exports of rare earth to Japan, the leading Japanese car manufacturers informed there were undue delays in shipments getting released from the Chinese ports. The Sino-Nipponese relations strained after the detention of a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with two Japan Coast Guard vessels off the disputed Senkaku Islands on Sep 7.
While Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold visited Tokyo last week, Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan said "Development of mine resources in resource-rich Mongolia will benefit both countries." According to Japanese government sources, the country is engaged in various programs to counter import of rare minerals from a principal single source. Besides Mongolian venture, assistance to rare earth mining projects in Kazakhstan, Vietnam and other countries are considered; and providing subsidies for the development of a new technology to reduce the use of rare earth elements in manufacturing.
By Jose Roy
japan trains eye on mongolian rare earths after spat with china