by E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow Greg Walcher
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel
I was among a small group that met recently with Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, to talk about public land management. When the discussion turned to minerals, he picked up a dark brown rock from the Mojave Desert and passed it around, explaining that it was mostly composed of a “rare earth” element. Such rocks, he said, litter the desert by the millions, yet the United States imports 100 percent of the important mineral it contains.
He and other leaders have been concerned for years about America’s growing reliance on China for rare earth minerals, several of which are critical in the production of renewable energy, and high-tech equipment like cell phones, computers, MRI machines, and satellites. Most Americans don’t spend two seconds worrying about where we get our supplies of these particular elements with hard-to-pronounce names, like ytterbium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. But China’s increasing use of economic espionage to steal technology has heightened concerns about the vast quantity of our imports from the land of the red dragon.
Last fall, the Justice Department indicted 10 Chinese intelligence officers and cyber hackers from the China’s civilian espionage organization, the Ministry of State Security (MSS). They had stolen airline engine technology to aid the Chinese defense industry’s development of a copy-cat engine. Just two weeks earlier, the FBI arrested Yanjun Xu, a high MSS official who had illegally purchased General Electric commercial aviation technology. U.S. intelligence agencies have been warning that China is using students as spies, and mining social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to recruit more.