Will a near-monopoly in rare earth metals do for China what oil did for Saudi Arabia?
Not if the U.S. government has anything to say about it.
President Barack Obama made that clear last week when he joined the European Union and the Japanese government in filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) about China's manipulation of the global market in rare earth metals.
"We've got to take control of our energy future and we cannot let that energy industry take root in some other country because they were allowed to break the rules," Obama said in the Rose Garden.
It's a clear signal that Obama will do anything to keep China from maintaining a stranglehold on rare earth metals-a set of 17 minerals that are responsible for powering everything from hybrid cars to self-cleaning ovens.
More importantly, the filing is an acknowledgement that the minerals represent a crucial source of renewable energy that are now essential to the way we live.
Rare Earth Metals: Easy to Find, Hard to Mine
Rare earths have been in the headlines a lot recently.
That's because demand for rare earth metals has skyrocketed in the past few years and is likely to grow exponentially in the years ahead.
The pace of technological innovation is accelerating and the world is producing and consuming more high-tech devices than ever before.
After the rare metal Europium was introduced as a source of the color red in TV sets in 1967, their use has expanded to MRI and x-ray machines, DVDs, mobile phones, lasers and many other devices that we use daily.
More recently lanthanum has become a key component of hybrid car batteries, making it critical to Obama's campaign to double the fuel efficiency of the American automobile by 2025.
Crucial as they are, the elements are hardly rare. They are found scattered around the globe in the earth's crust and are as commonplace as copper and lead.
The problem is, they are usually found in small quantities, making them difficult to cost-effectively mine. They also come with severe environmental hazards because they are often found along with radioactive materials or other harmful substances.
China's Near- Monopoly on Rare Earth Metals
As it turns out, China has vast rare-earth deposits, mostly in Inner Mongolia. The government has also heavily subsidized state-owned mining companies and allowed them to operate without strict environmental oversight.
That's made China the biggest producer of rare earths, with a more than 95% share of the global market.