Rare Earths: Can India and Japan Face China's Supply Chain Monopoly?

An announcement by a minister from India that his country would start plumbing the depths of the ocean for rare earth deposits puts the spotlight back on the rare earth metals sector.

More so because India’s recently acquired friend in the field of rare earths, Japan, hit pay dirt when a team of researchers came across a vast rare earths deposit approximately 1,200 miles east of Tokyo. The announcement was made earlier this month.

In India, the minister’s announcement was reported in the mainline media, cloaked in political innuendoes. Not surprising, since China, the country which has fought a war with India and continues to have an uneasy diplomatic relationship, is the world’s largest producer of rare earth metals. Next in line – India. But a yawning gap separates the production capacities of both.

What got lost in the announcement made by India’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, and Earth Sciences Ashwani Kumar was his stress on “…exploring the ocean not for commercial profits but with a strategic purpose.” The minister explained that elements like titanium and platinum, found in the ocean depths, were used in space technology and shipbuilding, among other things.

India has the capability to mine the ocean bed up to a depth of 6,000 meters. According to a report in The Economic Times, the search would be in an area of 2,500 kilometers in international waters after approval from the International Sea Bed Authority.

The announcement of “mining for strategic purposes” does put India’s rare earth production capacity under scrutiny. It’s had a poor track record so far. Some sector analysts have in the past already dubbed India’s efforts in this field as “too little, always too late.”

The Minister’s announcement brings hope of a fresh impetus. Has India finally stumbled off the starter’s blocks, after a series of false starts, in the rare earths race? Skeptics may smirk at the thought. China may be a difficult act to catch, but the one question that some Western and Asian nations still ask is, “Will India be able to put up some semblance of competition against China?”

There are several reasons for this.

Continued in Part Two.

Sohrab Darabshaw contributes an Indian perspective to MetalMiner’s digital pages.


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