U.S. intelligence officials warned Congress last week that China poses a major security threat to the United States. Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that China is seeking to undermine America’s military, economic, cultural, and information power across the globe and urged Congress to view China as a “whole-of-society threat.”
A major contributor to China’s rising power, and one of its primary trade weapons, is its near-monopoly over several minerals and materials that the United States military relies on to maintain its technological edge.
In recognition of such high stakes, the administration has made producing and manufacturing domestic supplies of minerals a national security priority over the past year. The White House has issued three executive orders aimed at maximizing the federal government’s use of materials produced in the United States, identifying weaknesses in domestic supply chains, and reducing reliance on foreign sources for critical minerals. These executive orders are the start of a comprehensive, long-term policy for ensuring a steady supply of domestic critical materials, but congressional effort is still needed in order to reverse decades of inaction on the issue.
Since 1986, U.S. dependence on foreign sources of mineral materials has more than doubled. As a result, the United States is now 100 percent reliant on imports for 21 key minerals despite a wealth of domestic mineral resources. America is also more than 50 percent reliant on imports for an additional 29 minerals.
Furthermore, the Department of the Interior, responding to an executive order issued in December, recently identified 35 minerals as particularly vulnerable to disruption. These minerals have a wide range of applications in the aerospace, defense, energy, telecommunications, and transportation industries, among others. If any one of their supply chains were disrupted, there could be a significant negative impact on both the economy and national security.
Given the nation’s increased foreign dependence, adversarial nations that provide these minerals, such as China and Russia, have gained geopolitical leverage at exactly the wrong time. Russia now poses a national security threat across multiple domains, and China has demonstrated an “impressive military buildup…across almost every domain,” according to the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris.
And yet, as of 2017 China was still a major supplier of 26 commodities to the United States that are essential for aerospace and defense applications. Given that the United States possesses mineral reserves worth $6.2 trillion, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), continuing to rely on imports is fiscally foolish and politically dangerous.
Fortunately, the executive orders and recent legislation introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) would address many of the obstacles to manufacturing competitiveness in the United States, including a lengthy mine permitting process.
The executive orders will boost the defense industrial base by identifying weak points in manufacturing and supply chains and incentivizing the use of goods, products, and materials produced in the United States to fill any capability gaps and reduce foreign dependencies.
Meanwhile, to further encourage the growth of U.S. manufacturing in critical supply chains, Amodei’s “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act” will remove a significant barrier to entry, and will expedite the mining permit process to no more than 30 months. This would be closer in line with the average permitting timelines of countries like Canada and Australia, whose processes take about two to three years and employ similarly strict environmental guidelines.
Quicker permitting decreases the risk of delays in opening new mines, improves the business case for mining, and results in needed materials reaching troops and other consumers in a rapid fashion — when they’re needed, rather than years after a shortage has been identified.
Though a version of this bill has passed the House in the last three Congresses, it has never become law. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced an identical bill in the last Congress, but it was never passed out of committee.
The White House, through its executive orders, has shown that it understands the risks of the current, laborious mine permitting system in the United States, and recognizes the potential rewards for encouraging new sources of critical materials. Whether through Amodei’s bill or another mechanism, Congress should also act to mitigate these risks and encourage new efforts.
Jeff A. Green is president and founder of J.A. Green & Company, a bipartisan government relations firm based in Washington DC.