In an effort to secure ongoing access to Rare Earths (REEs) for its domestic industries, Japan, which in geological terms does not have much of a resource profile, has entered into a series of cooperative agreements with Kazakhstan, a nation quickly ascending into the league of top REE suppliers in the world.
The latest one of these deals, struck by the Nipponese Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation’s (JOGMEC) in late October with local Kazakh authorities to jointly explore for rare earths in the Karaganda and Kostanay regions, solidifies Japan’s foothold in the resource-rich Central Asian nation.
Policy makers in the U.S. – which is no stranger to import dependencies for critical mineral resources – should take note. Commodity prices may have cooled in recent years, and manufacturers are increasingly looking to substitution and recycling, but these are no silver bullets to alleviate supply shortages, particularly as demand for tech minerals will likely continue to soar.
Meanwhile, the global resource wars are continuing to heat up before our very own eyes. Japan may have learned its lesson the hard way, when China cut off its REE exports to Japan in 2010. It is now approaching its mineral supply issues strategically, with a long-term vision in mind, and is not only looking to Kazakhstan, but has also signed a partnership agreement with India to explore stakes in deep-sea mining.
Whether or not we may one day see OPEC-style coordination between China, Russia and Kazakhstan on global REE supply, as some fear, the United States, would be well-advised to join Japan in formulating a long-term critical mineral resource strategy – the stakes are too high, and the nature of mining and challenges associated with it are just not conducive to improvising policies on the fly.