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As U.S. Chinese Tensions Soar, Congressional Witnesses Call for Strengthening U.S. Defense Industrial Base and Domestic Critical Mineral Supply Chains During Armed Services Committee Hearing

If we needed any more reminders about the high-stakes nature of our ongoing (see ARPN’s post on the latest USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries report here) deep over-reliance on Chinese-sourced (and/or processed) critical minerals, the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace and the subsequent downing of three other unidentified flying objects over Alaska and Canada have clearly delivered.

The events have created a new flashpoint in already strained U.S.-Chinese relations.  The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing planned for this past weekend was canceled and U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) are on high alert.

Against this backdrop, last week’s hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on the State of the Defense Industrial Base should be viewed with a greater sense of urgency.

During the hearing, members of Congress and defense experts argued that there was a “mismatch between what our national strategies aim to achieve and how our defense industrial base is postured,” and that “key industrial readiness indicators for great power competition are going in the wrong direction,” as David Norquist, president of the National Defense Industrial Association phrased it.

A key culprit, according to witnesses, is an over-reliance on Chinese supplies of key critical materials, like antimony, and the rare earths not just in terms of mining, but also processing.

“We found ourselves where we were relying on China for those minerals over many years, giving up our capacity and our ability to do that,” Eric Fanning, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, told the committee, referring to reshoring critical mineral production and processing capabilities, according to the Daily Caller’s Micaela Burrow.

Soliciting recommendations from witnesses on what Congress could do in the context of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to shore up U.S. domestic processing capabilities and strengthen the defense industrial base, committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) stressed that “it is completely unacceptable that we are so heavily reliant on China for those minerals as well as their processing.”

The hearing also highlighted one of the inherent ironies of today’s critical mineral resource policy, which juxtaposes the urgent need to access and process critical minerals domestically with environmentalist pressures to reject new mineral resource projects.

Burrow cites Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-FL) who put it bluntly: “The problem is us. We’re schizophrenic,” pointing to Armed Services members pressuring companies to access those minerals domestically while Congress orders other federal government entities, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to sequester public lands.

Overall, Daniel F. Runde, senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS argued in The Hill this weekend, while there has been an uptick in activity and recent legislative changes are “significant and helpful,” “coherent strategy remains absent.”

Runde cites the Biden Administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy as an example, which, he says, contains no mention of the mining and processing challenge posed by China — a “regrettable” omission “given that past assessments have found that China strategically floods the metals market to undermine U.S. producers critical to national security.” 

At a time when geopolitical stakes continue to mount and tensions flare, here’s hoping that in the coming months, urgency to strengthen U.S. critical mineral supply chains and the defense industrial base with a comprehensive all-of-the-above-approach is the name of the game.

As Norquist closed his remarks to the committee last week:

“The return of great power competition places greater demands on America’s defense industrial base. A brittle industrial base is a strategic vulnerability. A resilient defense industrial base is a powerful deterrent.”