Minor Metals Could be Caught in ‘US-China Rare Earths Crossfire,’ Traders Say

Minor metals could become the next commodities to be caught up in the trade war between the United States and China, market sources have warned. But the effects on the prices for gallium and antimony have so far been minimal.The government in Beijing has made a number of gestures suggesting that it could restrict the export of rare earths to the US.

These threats have met with some skepticism among market sources, but they have also pushed up the prices of a number of critical rare earth commodities.

The US Department of Defense is now actively seeking new sources for these elements, which have a wide range of applications in the defense and hi-tech industries.

And a number of sources have suggested to Fastmarkets that other strategic metals could be entangled in the trade dispute, including antimony.

“When they talk about rare earths… they don’t just refer to the [standard list of] 17 elements but also materials that are critical to the US, and these include several minor metals,” a European trader said. “If there is any kind of export restriction, antimony will be included.”

In May 2018, the US Department of the Interior issued a list of 35 minerals that it considered critical to the US economy and national security. This list included all the rare earth elements along with many non-ferrous and minor metals, such as germanium, indium, lithium, magnesium, tellurium, vanadium, titanium, antimony and tungsten.

On June 4 this year, the US Department of Commerce released a federal strategy intended to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign sources of “critical minerals” and promising “unprecedented action.”

Among the recommendations it made were stockpiling, diversifying domestic critical mineral sources, and more efficient processing, manufacturing and recycling of critical minerals to minimize waste and increase supply.

China is by far the world’s largest exporter of antimony, although market sources agreed that a significant proportion of those exports were made up of artisanal production that was smuggled into China from other origins.

Unlike other minor metals such as gallium and bismuth, antimony was not subjected to US tariffs last May, underscoring the Western country’s dependence on these Chinese materials.