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Ryan Pickrell

China's next move in the trade war could threaten US F-35s

( Samuel King Jr./US Air Force)

China is threatening the US with the possibility that it may withhold rare earth elements critical to the production of a number of different US products, including missiles and stealth fighters.

The US has been turning up the heat on China in the ongoing trade war. Now, Chinese media is warning that China can up the stakes.

"United States, don't underestimate China's ability to strike back," the People's Daily, the paper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, wrote May 29, 2019, according to Reuters.

"Will rare earths become a counter weapon for China to hit back against the pressure the United States has put on for no reason at all? The answer is no mystery," the newspaper explained in a commentary, ominously adding, "Don't say we didn't warn you!"


Other Chinese media outlets released similar articles.

Rare earth elements, of which China produces the overwhelming majority, play an important role in the production of defense systems. For example, a US Navy Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine requires 9,200 pounds of rare earth metals, while an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer needs 5,200 pounds.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke.

(Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class RJ Stratchko)

US defense contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin use rare earth metals to make high-end guidance systems and sensors for missiles and other military platforms, Reuters reported.

An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, a fifth-generation stealth jet built to give the US an edge over rivals like China, requires 920 pounds of rare earth materials, according to Asia Times, which reported that the US has an almost nonexistent ability to produce rare earth materials.

"The US side wants to use the products made by China's exported rare earths to counter and suppress China's development," the People's Daily argued May 29, 2019. "The Chinese people will never accept this!"

The paper's rhetoric suggests that China would intentionally take aim at the US defense sector, which Beijing believes is working to contain China's rise.

An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The US relies on China for as much as 80% of its rare earth materials, according to Bloomberg. "Rare earths are a niche specialty and critical to the Defense Department," Simon Moores, managing director at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told the outlet.

"Rare earths are essential to the production, sustainment, and operation of US military equipment," a 2016 Government Accountability Office report explained, adding that "Reliable access to the necessary material, regardless of the overall level of defense demand, is a bedrock requirement for DOD."

Were China to pull the plug, it could certainly lead to complications, although there is the possibility that the department could turn to alternative sources given that its requirement is only 1% of the total US demand for rare earth elements.

Beijing has not yet said that it will take this step, but is certainly troubling that Chinese media is threatening this move as a potential response to US actions in the trade war.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.