James Kennedy:中国稀土加工:扼住美国命运的咽喉|2019-05-14

2019年5月14日14:26:09 发表评论

本文来自观方翻译,原文出自美国《国防》月刊网站3月21日刊登ThREE咨询公司(ThREE=钍与稀土元素)总裁詹姆斯·肯尼迪文章《中国巩固稀土加工统治地位》,作者:James Kennedy,翻译:Kris。

美国国防技术领先地位的相对下降,与其稀土能力的衰落是同步的。

这是一个令人震惊的故事,美国长期失败的经济和国家安全政策,在扼杀经济的同时,还导致它在许多下一代武器系统上落后于中国。

与此同时,中国的进步主要源于其在稀土资源生产、精炼、材料科学、冶金、知识产权、研发以及商业与国防应用方面为取得世界领先地位而付出超乎寻常的努力。稀土包括元素周期表上的17种元素,它们是大多数现代技术和武器系统的关键成分。

美国的稀土供应链于1980年首次遭到破坏。美国核管理委员会和国际原子能机构修改相关法规——“第40部分:源材料的国内许可(Part 40: Domestic Licensing of Source Material)”——无意中导致美国稀土工业向中国全面转移。

在那之前,重稀土来自铁矿石、钛、锆石或磷酸盐岩等大宗商品的含钍副产品。当时矿业公司可以提取稀土副产品,挣取一点额外利润。可后来任何含有钍的东西都被视作潜在的核燃料来源,受到高度管控,这桩生意便断掉了。出于成本和责任方面的考虑,这些矿业公司将稀土资源归作尾矿,当废物掩埋掉。

这对所有遵循美国核管理委员会或国际原子能机构法规的国家的稀土生产造成了深远影响。中国是国际原子能机构的观察员国,但不是其缔约国。

今天,中美之间的差距仍在持续,部分原因是五角大楼、政府机构以及金融和采矿行业在开采和氧化物生产层面衡量稀土提取。数百个稀土开采项目在中国以外启动,错误地让人以为西方对中国稀土的依赖在下降。然而,大多数项目最终都失败了。

在2012年上市的400多家稀土创业公司中,进入了生产阶段的只有不到五家,达到一定产量的只有两家,其中一家破产后在中国融资下复活,另一家在短期内失去了经营许可。

在此期间,中国从许多已宣告失败或濒临失败的项目中获取了重要的股权和债务头寸。一旦项目启动生产,中国将掌握控制权。

此外,只把稀土开采和提纯氧化物列入报告会扭曲政府的政策决定,因为这些材料在被精炼成金属之前几乎无法应用到技术或国防领域。只有中国具备精炼能力。事实上,中国以外所有的稀土矿场都将精矿或高价值氧化物运往中国,加工成稀土金属、合金、磁铁和其他高价值材料。

美国太专注于稀土开采而非整个稀土供应链,对其国家安全和经济安全产生了负面作用,因为所有国防和技术应用都始于稀土卑金属或其他后氧化物,而不是新采掘的矿石或氧化物。中国已经在全球范围内锁定了获取稀土金属、合金、磁铁和大多数后氧化物的途径。

2016年2月,美国政府问责局发布报告《稀土材料:制定综合性手段有助于国防部更好管控供应链中的国家安全风险》(“Rare Earth Materials: Developing a Comprehensive Approach Could Help DoD Better Manage NationalSecurity Risks in the Supply Chain”)。据其估算,美国可能需要15年才能重建国内稀土供应链。

美国的决策者们几乎都不明白这些问题的复杂性。如果告诉他们,中国只要选择禁运这些材料,就有可能关停其他国家所有的汽车、电脑、智能手机和飞机装配线,他们必然目瞪口呆。同样的情况也可能发生在美国和北约所有依赖稀土的武器系统上。这些供应链是可以切断的。因此,西方的军事采购处于中国的控制之下。

尽管如此,美国政府报告和评估都没有做出以上论断,因为它们在统计上都用稀土开采量和氧化物生产量来代替包括金属、合金、磁铁、石榴石和其他后氧化物在内的所有稀土材料。一旦爆发危机,美国缺乏应急准备。

以上提到的材料,在美国国防后勤局中几乎没有储备。美国政府在1994年至1998年间变卖了全部稀土战略储备。国防后勤局目前的战略储备只有少量稀土氧化物和镝金属。这种形态的材料无法供美国国防工业直接使用。政府问责局的报告指出,这些材料需要经过中国供应链加工才能被利用。

美国国防承包商和技术公司使用的所有稀土金属、合金和磁铁都可以追溯到中国:它们如果不是直接来自中国,就是间接通过日本采购或美国合金和磁铁制造商进口。

2014年7月的美国国防部总监察长报告《国防工业基础的稀土元素保障程序需要改进》(“Procedures to Ensure SufficientRare Earth Elements for the Defense Industrial Base Need Improvement”)指出,五角大楼无法在零部件和分包商层面有效监测稀土投入。更糟糕的是,从报告中可以清楚看出,美国国防部对无法应用于国防的稀土氧化物和国防系统所需的后氧化物不加区分,而且没人过问这些材料的来源。

为什么?因为美国国防部等机构评估供应安全风险时,仍然以全球稀土氧化物产量作为基础,忽略了下游制造业供应链面临的风险。

十年来,国会议员、国防部和两届政府反复收到警报,但真正了解其中风险的人还是太少。

美国决策者们坚信技术领先地位是美国最大的经济和国家安全优势。但由于稀土的关系,这一点已经发生了变化。因此,我所在的ThREE 咨询公司在全球范围内对稀土专利申请进行了调查。专利申请量可以帮助我们较准确地评估中国下一代武器系统和列入规划的其他技术。

以下数据来自对国际稀土专利的详尽国别检索。时间范围从提交第一项专利申请开始到2018年8月最后一次提交为止。检索结果包括80,000多项专利。搜索关键词包括稀土、镧系元素、镧、铈、镨、钕、钷、钐、铕、钆、铽、镝、钬、铒、铥、镱、钪和钇。

中国1983年才首次提交国际稀土专利申请,而短短14年之后,中国的相关专利申请量就超过了美国以及其他所有国家。截至2018年8月,中国稀土专利申请量累积比美国多出2.3万件。

我们通过调查还发现:自2011年以来,中国每年的稀土专利申请量都超过世界其他国家的总和。到2021年初,中国累积的稀土专利数量将超过世界其他国家的总和。中国公司可以通过专利诉讼和专利封锁等法律策略来破坏或废除现有的非中国专利。相对于世界其他国家,中国的专利申请还在提速,从2011年到2018年增加了250%。

在过去的40年里,不论在制造业和工业基础政策报告、递交给国会的中国威胁报告或信息采集报告里,美国国防部都从未把中国的稀土生产和稀土专利数量作为严肃关切的对象。

白宫最近下令撰写的一份报告终于承认了这个问题。《美国制造与国防工业基础和供应链弹性评估与强化》(“Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States”)提出,“中国对关乎美国国家安全的战略性关键材料供应构成重大且不断提升的风险。”

对于美国国防部和国防承包商而言,过去几十年可以说一帆风顺:预算越来越多,股价也越来越高。然而,中国却利用这段时期为超越和取代西方奠定了基础。北京一直对稀土研究给予直接或间接的资助,并实施技术转让策略,这些努力得到了回报。

中国的进步正在迅速改变全球力量均势,将未来掌握在自己手中。军事专家称,未来的定向能武器(directed energy weapons)将改写或控制战局。而每种定向能武器都需要重稀土和高尖端材料科学能力。中国控制着美国获取这些材料的渠道。这些因素导致中国目前在该领域具备优势,这意味着中国最终将在定向能武器的研发与部署上引领全球。

这对五角大楼的专家来说是个坏消息,因为维持美国安全的核心计划是以维持技术领先地位为基础的。中国在五角大楼的观察员们的眼皮底下勇敢地跨过了这道门槛,可后者却视而不见、充耳不闻,并且显然没有后备计划。

解除中国对美国经济和国防扼制的办法,目前已经送达参议院和联邦政府。美国政界若再不放下内部仇怨、恢复治理,一切就都太晚了。

 

China Solidifies Dominance in Rare Earth Processing

America’s relative fall from defense technological leadership mirrors its decline in rare earth capabilities.

This is an appalling story of a long-running U.S. economic and national security failure that has put the nation behind China on many next-generation weapon systems while stifling the economy.

Meanwhile, China’s advances are largely built on its unparalleled commitment to leading the world in rare earth resource production, refining, material science, metallurgy, intellectual property, research and development, and commercial and defense applications. Rare earths are 17 elements on the periodic table that are now critical components in most modern technologies and weapon systems.

The U.S. rare earth supply chain was first compromised in 1980. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency change in regulations — “Part 40: Domestic Licensing of Source Material” — inadvertently ushered in the transfer of all aspects of U.S. rare earth industry to China.

Prior to that, heavy rare earths came from thorium-bearing byproducts of commodities such as iron ore, titanium, zircon or rock phosphate. Companies that mined these minerals could extract the rare earth byproducts and make a little extra profit. Once anything containing thorium was considered a potential source of nuclear fuel and highly regulated, that ended. Due to the costs and liabilities, these mining companies diverted these rare earth resources into their mine tailings as waste and buried them.

This had a profound impact on rare earth production in all NRC/IAEA compliant countries. China is an IAEA observer, but not a signatory to its agreements.

Today, the disparity between China and the United States continues in part because the Pentagon, government agencies, and the finance and mining industries measure the extraction of rare earths at the mining and oxide production level. Hundreds of rare earth mining projects outside of China have been initiated, giving the erroneous impression that Western rare earth dependence on China may be declining. However, most ultimately fail.

Out of more than 400 rare earth startups publicly listed in 2012, less than five reached production. Of those, only two reached significant volumes. Of those two, one is bankrupt and resurrected with Chinese financing and the other lost its operating permit for a short period.

During this time, China has taken significant equity and debt positions in many of these failed or faltering projects and will control them if they begin production.

Also, reporting solely on mined rare earths or purified oxides distorts government policy decisions because these materials have no significant technology or defense application until they are refined into metals. Only China has the capacity to do that. In fact, every non-Chinese rare earth mine ships its concentrates, or high-value oxides, to China for processing into rare earth metals, alloys, magnets and other high-value materials.

Preoccupation with rare earth mining instead of the entire rare earth supply chain undermines national and economic security because all defense and technology applications begin with base rare earth metals or other post-oxide materials, not freshly unearthed ore or oxides. China has a global lock on access to rare earth metals, alloys, magnets and most other post-oxide materials.

Meanwhile, a February 2016 Government Accountability Office report, “Rare Earth Materials: Developing a Comprehensive Approach Could Help DoD Better Manage National Security Risks in the Supply Chain,” estimated it could take the United States 15 years to rebuild a domestic rare earth supply chain.

Few if any U.S. policymakers understand these subtleties. Most would be stunned to learn that China could shut down nearly every automobile, computer, smartphone and aircraft assembly line outside of China if they chose to embargo these materials. The same applies to all rare-earth dependent U.S. and NATO weapon systems. These supply chains can be cut. Western military procurement thus is under Chinese control.

Despite this, government reports and assessments have not made these determinations because they accept statistics on rare earth mining and oxide production as a proxy for metals, alloys, magnets, garnets and other post-oxide rare earth materials. There is no contingency in case of a crisis.

Most of these named materials are not stockpiled by the Defense Logistics Agency. The U.S. government sold off its entire strategic reserve of rare earths between 1994 and 1998. The agency’s strategic reserve now holds only small amounts of rare earth oxides and dysprosium metal. None are in a form that can be directly utilized by our defense industry. The GAO reported that these materials would need to pass through a Chinese supply chain in order to be utilized.

All rare earth metals, alloys and magnets used by U.S. defense contractors and technology firms can be traced back to China: directly or indirectly through Japanese sourcing or via U.S. alloy and magnet fabricators.

According to a July 2014 Defense Department Inspector General report, “Procedures to Ensure Sufficient Rare Earth Elements for the Defense Industrial Base Need Improvement,” the Pentagon is incapable of properly monitoring rare earth inputs at the component and subcontractor level. Worse yet, it was clear from the report that no one in the Pentagon differentiates between rare earth oxides — with no defense applications — and the post-oxides materials needed for the defense systems — and none bother to ask where these materials come from.

Why? Because the Pentagon and others continue to evaluate U.S. national security supply risk on the basis of global rare earth oxide production. Risks to the downstream manufacturing supply chain are simply ignored.

After 10 years of raising the alarm on this issue with members of Congress, the Defense Department and two administrations, too few understand the risks we are facing.

U.S. policymakers believe that technology leadership is the country’s greatest strength, both economically and for national security. But this is no longer true as it relates to rare earths. Therefore, ThREE Consulting commissioned a worldwide rare earth patent filings survey. Patent filings are a reasonable proxy of potential next-generation weapon systems and other technology that could be in China’s pipeline.

The data were derived from an exhaustive international rare earth patent search by country of origin. The search dates were unbounded: from the first filed patent to the last filings of August 2018. The data set includes over 80,000 patents. Search terms were rare earth(s), lanthanide(s), lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, scandium and yttrium.

China’s first international rare earth patent filing was in 1983, and just 14 years later, China surpassed the United States and every other nation in total patents filed as shown in the chart. As of August 2018, China has accumulated 23,000 more rare earth patent filings than the United States.

Here are some other findings: China has filed more rare earth patents than the rest of the world combined every year since 2011. By early 2021, China will have accumulated more rare earth patents than the rest of the world combined. Chinese companies can use patent-trolling and patent-ring-fencing legal strategies to undermine or nullify existing non-Chinese patents. China’s rate of filings is accelerating relative to the rest of the world — increasing 250 percent from 2011 to 2018.

At no time over the last 40 years was China’s rare earth production, or its growing number of rare earth patents, listed as an issue of serious concern by the Pentagon in any of its past manufacturing and industrial base policy reports, reports to Congress on China threats, or acquisition reports.

Finally, a recent report ordered by the White House acknowledged the problem. “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” stated that “China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security.”

For the Pentagon and defense contractors the last few decades have been good: ever larger budgets and soaring stock prices. China, however, used this time to set the groundwork to overtake and displace the West. Beijing’s commitment to direct and indirect funding of rare earth research and a forced technology-transfer strategy has paid off.

China’s advances are quickly altering the global balance of power, and its future will be in its hands. For example, directed energy weapons will alter or control military outcomes in the future, according to military experts. However, every single directed-energy weapon also requires heavy rare earths and highly advanced material science capabilities. China controls U.S. access to these materials. All of this plays into China’s current strengths in these fields, suggesting that the nation will eventually lead the world in the development and deployment of direct energy weapons.

This is bad news for Pentagon experts whose central plan for continued U.S. security was based on continued technology leadership. China has boldly crossed this threshold in plain view of the Pentagon’s classic three-monkey observation team. And apparently, there is no backup plan.

Solutions to overcoming China’s stranglehold over the economy and national defense are circulating in the Senate and exist within the administration. It’s past time to stop the rancor inside the Beltway and get back to governing. 

 

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