Nations wary of dependence on China’s rare earths

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Toyota Motor Corp. said last week it set up a rare earth task force. An affiliated trading company, Toyota Tsusho Corp., established a rare earth mining joint venture in Vietnam two years ago.

“There are many risks in depending on one nation,” company spokesman Morimasa Konishi said.

The company expects the Vietnam mine to begin supplying minerals to Japan in 2012, he said. Toyota Tsusho has also invested in a similar project in India, which should begin operating next year.

Toshiba Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. have each launched rare earth joint ventures in Kazakhstan over the past year. Australia’s Lynas Corp. said last week that it had signed a deal to supply a major Japanese company with rare earths from its Mount Weld project in western Australia. Lynas did not name the company and said it was in talks with other firms in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

South Korea _ home of tech giants Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. _ has taken notice of its neighbors’ dispute.

It plans to spend 17 billion won ($15 million) by 2016 as part of a long-term plan that seeks to secure 1,200 metric tons in rare earths reserves, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy said in a statement.

Seoul expects prices to climb and supplies to become increasingly unstable, as its main supplier China consistently decreases exports, the statement said.

The policy plan, titled “Plans for Stable Procurement of Rare Metals,” will be finalized in mid-October, after further consultations, the ministry said. The plan will include strategies on developing domestic mines and investing into research for alternative materials and recycling technologies.

And in the U.S., legislation to jump start domestic rare earth production appears to be gaining momentum.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, lawmakers expressed concern that the U.S. was so reliant on China. David Sandalow, assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs, told the hearing there were “potentially very serious implications” if the U.S. lost access to rare earths.

“It could interrupt the development of clean energy technologies,” Sandalow said. “It could interrupt commerce.”

Lifton, the consultant from Michigan, believes the rare earths issue represents “the tip of the iceberg” as China’s ambitions and economy grow rapidly. Similar supply worries could emerge about other high-tech metals that China sends to the world.

“The Chinese are pretty set on moving manufacturing to their country,” he said. “They don’t think that’s sinister. That’s just doing business.”

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Associated Press business writers Joe McDonald in Beijing and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo and AP writers Sangwon Yoon in Seoul and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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