By Mei Jingya, Sina English
Japan has for long served as China’s most stable and largest rare earth export market.
In September 2010, non-governmental groups called for the Chinese government to stop exports to Japan of its rare earth metals after Tokyo arrested a fishing boat captain whose trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels. However, China didn’t echo the call.
On Oct 1, 2010, Japan announced that it will move up developing new materials that can replace rare earth minerals in order to get rid of its dependence on Chinese exports. At the same time, it also worked to increase multi-channel supply by mining the precious minerals in more other foreign countries.
Quoting a Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) report, the website of the Ministry of Commerce said Japan is upstepping its rare earth imports from outside China. In H1 of 2012, Japan imported 3,007 tons of rare earth minerals from China, which accounted for 49.3% of its total volume, marking the first drop to below 50%.
In 2011, Japan’s imports of the metals fell to 15,400 tons, falling 34% compared with the figure of the previous year. Before 2009, over 90% of Japan’s rare earth supply came from China. Nikkei said Japan currently owns 16,500 tons of rare earth metal resources in Australia, Kazakhstan, India and Vietnam. These resources will be available to Japan in 2013.
But, what Japan has is mostly light rare earths like cerium (Ce) and neodymium (Nd), which can only meet 60 to 80% of Japan’s domestic demands. As regards to its thirst for heavy rare earths like Dy element, which is widely used in permanent magnet motors for electric automobiles and high efficiency home appliances, Japan is still heavily dependent on Chinese supply, with 90% of them coming from China.
For years, heavy rare earths are unique products of China in the eyes of Japan.
At present, China still could not match Japan in manufacturing hi-tech products, while Japan thinks it is becoming subservient to Chinese raw materials. And the situation is likely to continue for another 2 or 3 decades.
Nikkei has earlier reported that in the Neodymium magnet sector, two Japanese companies, Hitachi Metals and Shin-Etsu Chemical, take the first and second place respectively, with the former having a market share of over 40% and the other below 40%. TDK ranked third in high-performance neodymium-iron magnet, accounting for 20% of the global market share.