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China takes aim at US F-35 fighter project by restricting exports of rare earths

Fighter jet F-35

China is looking at ways to curb exports of rare earth minerals, which could hit the F-35 fighter jet programme of the United States. A report published by Financial Times said that “China is exploring limiting the export of rare earth minerals that are crucial for the manufacture of American F-35 fighter jets and other sophisticated weaponry.” The move is a fallout of the deteriorating relations between the US and China.  Rare earth minerals are used as components in high technology devices besides defence equipment.

They are also essential in several defence applications, including radar, the guidance systems of missiles and laser rangefinders. Apart from controlling the world supply of rare-earth metals, China also controls the majority of the global processing capacity. Rare earth components are also required for daily use items such as smartphones, computer memory, rechargeable batteries, magnets, fluorescent lighting among other things.

The F-35, a Lockheed Martin aircraft, known for having the most advanced sensor suite, provides the US the strategic edge while further boosting national security and global partnerships. The report noted that fighter jets including the F-35 are heavily dependent on rare earths. A Congressional Research Service report said that each F-35 required 417kg of rare-earth materials, the report said.

"The government wants to know if the US may have trouble making F-35 fighter jets if China imposes an export ban," FT quoted a Chinese government official as saying.

Rare earth elements comprise a group of 17 chemical elements. While they are all metals, these elements are mostly found together.

Even as President Joe Biden took charge of White House, friction between the two countries has not eased. Under former US president Donald Trump, US-China relations touched a new low.

“Beijing’s control of rare earths threatens to become a new source of friction with Washington but some warn any aggressive moves by China could backfire by prompting rivals to develop their own production capacity,” the article added.