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US Wants to Disrupt China's Rare Earth Dominance

FILE - Rare earths dug up and processed into concentrate at Mount Weld in western Australia are pictured after being shipped to a plant in Gebeng, Malaysia, July 3, 2014.

The U.S. military wants to partner with Australia to disrupt China's dominance over the global supply of rare earths — the minerals essential to high-tech products from cellphones to sophisticated weapons.

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters Monday the Pentagon's "highest potential avenue" is to build a rare earths processing facility with Australia in order to take care of the Pentagon's needs and the needs of other international allies.

"The challenge is really the processing of them [rare earths] and having the facilities to do that, because quite often China mines them elsewhere and brings them back to China to process them," Lord said.

About 80% of rare earth minerals imported by the United States come from China, and in 2017, China accounted for 81% of the world's rare earth production, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rare earth minerals are needed in U.S. military jet engines, satellites, missile defense systems and night vision devices.

"We're concerned about any fragility in the supply chain, especially when an adversary controls the supply," Lord said.

Earlier this year, China's state economic planner issued a veiled threat to withhold the strategic minerals as part of the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing.

"If anyone were to use products that are made with the rare earths that we export to curb the development of China, then the Chinese people would be unhappy," the official said.