Panda squashes ninja; Prius saved

Not a coincidence: Japan releases Chinese fishing captain and Congress gets busy on rare earth elements

Topics: Rare earth elements, How the World Works, China, Japan, Toyota,

Panda squashes ninja; Prius savedA Toyota Motor Corp's staff wipes the logo of the company's Prius Plug-In Hybrid during a promotional event in Hitachiota, about 130 km (81 miles) north of Tokyo June 17, 2010. As Japanese car sales plummet, Toyota is trying to get consumers here excited about cars -- and driving -- by promoting cities and villages around the country that can only be reached by automobile. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao (JAPAN - Tags: TRANSPORT EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS) (Credit: © Yuriko Nakao / Reuters)

Whether or not China officially halted exports of rare earth elements to Japan in retaliation for the imprisonment of a Chinese fishing captain is now irrelevant. Japan has buckled. There is no other way to interpret the following statement.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“We decided it was inappropriate to continue the investigation while keeping the suspect in custody any further, considering the future of the Japan-China relationship,” said Kenji Suzuki, a senior prosecutor at the Naha prosecutors’ office in Okinawa, a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon.

Japanese hybrid car manufacturers, who gobble up huge quantities of rare earth elements, might be breathing a sigh of relief, but the story doesn’t stop here. Japanese citizens are unhappy, the Economist is huffily warning that China’s “entirely disproportionate action” calls “into question its maturity as a responsible international actor, and the U.S. government is finally paying serious attention to America’s utter dependence on China for a critically important resource. On Thursday, the House Committee on Science and Technology approved H.R. 6160, the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010.

From the press release:



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[R]are earths are necessary components of such advanced technologies as wind turbines, hybrid-vehicle batteries, weapons guidance systems, oil refining catalysts, computer disk drives, televisions and monitors, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and fiberoptic cable, to name a few. China currently controls an estimated 90-97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, and it is pouring effort and money into a rapid buildup of its own high-technology industries that rely on rare earths. China began imposing export quotas on rare earths in 2006; the quotas have gotten steadily stricter, and China cut its rare earths exports for the second half of this year by 72 percent.

H.R. 6160 is co-sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans. It will be interesting to see whether the bill ends up getting caught in the same partisan cross-fire crippling just about everything else currently struggling to move through Congress.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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