The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China looks like it will get a lot worse before it gets better. In the latest bout of hostilities, the Donald Trump administration raised tariffs on Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent. China responded with a veiled threat to retaliate by raising tariffs or imposing restrictions on "rare earths," minerals that U.S. companies need to build electronic devices, refine oil into gasoline, polish camera lenses, and many, many other things. We even need them for F-35 Fighter Jets and guided missiles.
That's led to a lot of worry on this side of the Pacific that China's next escalation against the United States could leave American companies bereft of these necessary components or dramatically raise the price of products that contain them. That could make already-expensive items like iPhones and Teslas completely unaffordable.
The U.S.-China trade war is certainly serious business, and Americans are rightfully concerned about it. But it's too early to start worrying that your favorite electronic products are about to double in price or become unavailable altogether.
Admittedly, China does control the majority of the world's supply of refined rare earth minerals--120,000 out of the world's 170,000 metric tons a year of the stuff come from China every year. But it is by far not the only nation to mine rare earths. The United States mines 15,000 tons of its own according to Bloomberg. Australia mines 20,000 metric tons a year, and one company there is already gearing up to sell much more rare earths to the United States in case China stops supplying it.
Then there's Estonia, already the biggest supplier of rare earths to the United States after China. Myanmar is another producer of rare earths that would likely happily sell to the U.S.
Components, not minerals.
It's worth noting that the U.S. only purchased 3.8 percent of China's exported rare earths last year, according to the New York Times. That's because so much of U.S. manufacturing has moved to China. Thus, instead of being packed up and shipped to the U.S., the minerals are simply shipped to the Chinese factories that are using them to build American products.
There are a lot of benefits to manufacturing in China, or at least there were before the trade war. But one of them, perhaps ironically, was proximity to the world's largest supply of refined rare earths. So most of the minerals the U.S. receives from China come in the form of already-assembled components for electric cars, electronic devices, and so forth. Raising tariffs could mean that American companies with manufacturing deals in China will move those operations elsewhere. That could leave China with some idle factories.
It might not even happen.
China has not said it would raise tariffs or impose restrictions on U.S. imports of rare earths. Indeed, president Xi Jinping has not said anything one way or the other, instead making a symbolic statement by visiting a factory in Jiangxi Province that makes magnets from rare earths. Other government officials have made the threats instead, but they've been far from direct. One official told a Chinese daily that if the U.S. used China's rare earths to build products that would curb China's development, "the Chinese people will not be happy."
After Xi's factory visit, Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times tweeted that the government was seriously considering restrictions on rare earth exports to the U.S. But in another tweet he wrote of the move, "I think Chinese government won't do this immediately, but it's seriously evaluating the need to do so."
In general, China does not move impetuously. And its government has a lot of drawbacks to consider before it pulls the trigger on bigger sanctions or especially on restrictions on rare earth exports to the U.S. It's certainly possible that these events could make smartphones, electric cars, and many, many other items much more expensive than they are today. But if it happens, it won't be tomorrow.