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Discoveries announced in a journal article over the weekend may prove a game-changer for global rare earth supplies and recent diplomatic maneuvering in East Asia between China, Japan, Vietnam, and the United States.

A team of researchers from Japan’s Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology published findings inNature Geoscience that indicate vast underwater reserves of rare earth minerals are scattered across a huge swath of the Pacific, including south and east of Japan. The U.S. Geological survey estimates current global reserves of rare earth minerals at about 110 million tons; Yasuhiro Kato, the lead author of the Japanese team, toldReuters that the sites surveyed could contain an additional 80 to 100 billion metric tons (yes, with a “b”) of the valuable resources.

The authors write that an “area of just one square kilometer, surrounding one of the sampling sites, could provide one-fifth of the current annual world consumption of these elements.” The team collected data from 78 sites in total, with the largest concentrations centered east of the Hawaiian and Polynesian islands (see map of the surveyed areas here).

Resource Relationships

The discovery could prove crucial for Japan, as it has been seeking alternative sources of rare earth minerals after an embargo earlier this year by China, which controls 97 percent of the world’s current supply. The embargo (which China denied) was imposed in October of last year after the Japanese navy arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat, which was alleged to be encroaching on Japanese territorial waters. China’s response increased tensions across the region and produced a flurry of warnings in Washington over the security of U.S. supplies.

Although the embargo was later lifted, Japan and Vietnam reached an agreement for development of Vietnamese mines in November. The tensions sparked by the encounter also spread to the South China Sea where Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino forces have stepped up their jockeying over disputed and resource-rich waters to the highest levels in years. Vietnamese and Chinese naval forces recently held mirror exercises, and Filipino officials invoked a 1950-era defense pact with the United States. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters in June: “I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called concerns over navigability and Chinese insistence on bilateral (as opposed to multilateral) negotiations in the South China Sea a matter of “national interest” for the United States last year.

The Japanese team’s discovery has the potential to significantly impact the power dynamics behind these tensions. China has used its rare earth monopoly to pressure Japan and the United States, which in turn may have also helped embolden its recent more aggressive maritime policies. If the new rare earth discoveries prove viable, that calculus could change considerably.

However serious questions remain: Many of the discoveries lie outside of established exclusive economic zones, so who has the rights to mine them? They’re also between 11,500 and 20,000 feet below the surface – how long before we have the technologies to extract them at an industrial scale? And how safe – both for humans and the environment – will those processes be? Aboveground rare earth mines are some of the most damaging to the environment – part of the claimed reason China curbed overall exports earlier this year, which drove up global prices and drew the ire of the World Trade Organization.

For more on the importance of rare earth minerals to the defense and electronics industries, see New Security Beat’sRare Earth: A New Roadblock for Sustainable Energy?” and “Reading Radar: The Mineral Security of the United States.” For more on the exclusive economic zones map, see “Eye on Environmental Security: Natural Resource Frontiers at Sea;” and on the South China Sea and what it reveals about future diplomatic fault lines between the United States and China, see “U.S. v. China: The Global Battle for Hearts Minds and Resources.”