“The embargo is expanding” beyond Japan, said one of the three rare earth industry officials, all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of business retaliation by Chinese authorities. They said Chinese customs officials imposed the broader shipment restrictions Monday morning, hours after a top Chinese official had summoned international news media Sunday night to denounceUnited States trade actions.
China mines 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements, which have broad commercial and military applications, and are vital to the manufacture of diverse products including large wind turbines and guided missiles. Any curtailment of Chinese supplies of rare earths is likely to be greeted with alarm in Western capitals, particularly because Western companies are believed to keep much smaller stockpiles of rare earths than Japanese companies do.
China’s commerce ministry has repeatedly denied that it has imposed an embargo on shipments to Japan, even though Japanese ministers and industry executives say the shipments to their country have been systematically blocked by Chinese customs officials since Sept. 21.
Officials at the media relations office of China’s commerce ministry did not respond all day Tuesday to e-mail or to telephone calls, seeking confirmation of the expanded embargo.
A few rare earth shipments to the West had been delayed by customs officials in recent weeks, industry officials said, but the new, broader restrictions on exports appear to have been imposed Monday morning. They said there had been no signal from Beijing of how long rare earth shipments intended for the West would be held at the docks by Chinese customs officials. Nor is it clear if occasional shipments are still being allowed out of the country, or if all shipments have now been suspended.
Word of the blocked shipments emerged from industry executives on Tuesday after, earlier in the day, an official China newspaper reported that Beijing planned further reductions next year to its annual export quota for rare earths.
American trade officials announced last Friday that they would investigate whether China was violating international trade rules by subsidizing its clean energy industries. The inquiry includes whether China’s steady reductions in rare earth export quotas since 2005, along with steep export taxes on rare earths, are illegal efforts to force multinational companies to produce more of their high-technology goods in China.
That American announcement provoked an uncommonly fierce reaction from China. On Sunday evening, in an extremely rare move for a senior Chinese official, the country’s top energy policy maker, Zhang Guobao, called in reporters from international media organizations and lashed out against the American move.
Hours later, according to industry officials, Chinese customs officials began singling out and delaying rare earth shipments to the West.
Despite their name, most rare earths are not particularly rare. But new mines elsewhere will probably take three to five years to reach full production, according to industry executives.
Congress is considering legislation to provide loan guarantees for the re-establishment of rare earth mining and manufacturing in the United States. Most of the industry has moved to China over the last two decades because of lower costs and weak environmental enforcement there.
China, which in July said it was cutting this year’s export quota of rare earths by 72 percent, is preparing further reductions in its 2011 quota, the official newspaper China Daily said Tuesday. The Chinese government plans a further reduction, of up to 30 percent, next year, in an attempt to conserve dwindling reserves of the materials, according to the report.
Rare earth industry officials had been expecting a further reduction but were uncertain of the amount.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which is part of the White House, had a cautious reaction Tuesday to the China Daily report.
“Pursuant to our recent announcement, we are investigating whether China’s actions and policies regarding restrictions on rare earth exports are consistent with W.T.O. rules,” said Nefeterius A. McPherson, a spokeswoman for the office. “We will be monitoring any new developments with the same concerns in mind.”
Dudley Kingsnorth, a rare earth market analyst at the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia in Perth, said that if China adopted a further reduction in export quotas of 30 percent for next year, manufacturers elsewhere could face difficulties.
“That will create some problems,” he said. “It’ll force some people to look very carefully at the use of rare earths, and we might be reverting to some older technologies until alternative sources of rare earths are developed.”
Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting from Tokyo.