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China rare earth bans put heat on Australia to respond

Western nations have found themselves in a precarious situation following China’s recent bans on the exports of specific rare earth technologies, intensifying the urgency to develop alternative sources in Australia, according to Australia’s Resources Minister, Madeleine King.

Minister King is set to announce nearly $22 million in support for three research initiatives aimed at creating technologies similar to those targeted by Beijing’s restrictions.

The alarm was raised in the United States and Europe in December when China expanded its list of banned technologies, marking what Bloomberg News described as “the most significant rare-earth move from China in over a decade.”

Amid growing concerns that the ongoing US-China technology trade dispute may escalate further as former President Donald Trump vies for the White House in 2024, Minister King emphasized the need to compete. She acknowledged that Western nations had outsourced much of this work to China and praised their investments in technology, refining, and processing, making themselves indispensable for the future of green technologies.

Minister King denied that her statements would harm the Albanese government’s improved trade relationship with Beijing, asserting that the goal was to ensure global markets are not overly dependent on a single supplier for technologies crucial to green energy and defense.

In a bid to counter China’s tightening restrictions, Australia will allocate funds to three key organizations: the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and Geoscience Australia.

These funds, initially earmarked in Labor’s first budget update in October 2022, are now being allocated. ANSTO will receive $13.9 million to support research on the discovery, extraction, and processing of rare earth elements as byproducts of other mining activities.

CSIRO will receive $5.2 million to enhance know-how related to downstream production of high-purity metals, expand lithium value chains, and assist in developing tungsten ores.

Geoscience Australia will receive $2.7 million for research focused on local production of gallium, germanium, and indium, which can be extracted as byproducts from bauxite mining.

Minister King emphasized the importance of finding economic ways to extract these minerals from bauxite, acknowledging that these materials were previously sourced from elsewhere due to their low demand.

Minister King stated, “Having an over-reliance on one supplier of any one good or technology puts you in a vulnerable position, and that’s what we want to change.”

As Western nations grapple with the fallout from China’s rare earth bans, Australia’s commitment to developing domestic alternatives underscores the importance of diversifying supply chains in crucial technology sectors.