Rare earths are obscure elements with names like terbium that are essential for much of the electronic wizardry we take for granted today, including hybrid motors, wind turbines and crucial military applications. These elements once were supplied by several countries, including the United States.
But now they come almost exclusively from China, which is endowed with rare-earth deposits that are much more accessible and cheaply mined. And China being China, it has been using this leverage in a heavy-handed way.
The Chinese have been dialing back export quotas in general since 2005. In July, already tight quotas were slashed for the remainder of 2010 by 72 percent. The New York Times recently reported that China quietly halted shipments of certain rare-earth elements to the United States.
All this flies in the face of pledges China made when it was allowed to become part of the World Trade Organization, which bans export quotas except in certain cases.
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