The US-made fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter may fall victim to the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing as Chinese media outlets have speculated over a possible ban on sales of rare earths — elements critical to the production of cutting-edge weapons and high-tech products — in retaliation for US tariffs, according to Bloomberg.
Chinese authorities haven't officially announced they will restrict rare earths sales to the United States, but media outlets, for instance the People's Daily, heated up tensions by pointing at Washington's somewhat uncomfortable reliance on those elements from China, which accounts for roughly 95 percent of global output, per Bloomberg.
"Will rare earths become a counter weapon for China to hit back against the pressure the United States has put on for no reason at all? The answer is no mystery. Undoubtedly, the US side wants to use the products made by China's exported rare earths to counter and suppress China's development. The Chinese people will never accept this! We advise the US side not to underestimate the Chinese side's ability to safeguard its development rights and interests. Don't say we didn't warn you!" Reuters cited a People's Daily commentary, headlined "United States, don't underestimate China's ability to strike back".
The Global Times' Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin also believes that China may use its position as key supplier of rare earths if the trade war further escalates:
Based on what I know, China is seriously considering restricting rare earth exports to the US. China may also take other countermeasures in the future.— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) 28 мая 2019 г.
Beijing has yet to comment on the said assumptions, but the speculation is growing that China may pull the plug, thus targeting Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, each of which requires about 920 pounds of rare earth minerals, according to a 2013 report from the US Congressional Research Service.
In light of these reports, the US Defence Department has presented a report to Congress on rare earth minerals in a bid to mitigate US dependence on China.
A 2018 US government report, titled "Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defence Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States", highlighted the Pentagon's reliance on Chinese supplies.
"Rare earths are critical elements used across many of the major weapons systems the US relies on for national security, including lasers, radar, sonar, night vision systems, missile guidance, jet engines, and even alloys for armoured vehicles".
Beijing, in turn, warned that it would slap penalties on $60 billion worth of American products in retaliation for higher US taxation (from 10 percent to 25 percent) on Chinese goods.
China and the US have been embroiled in a trade dispute since the Trump administration introduced 25 percent tariffs against up to $50 billion worth of Chinese goods in June 2018 in order to fix what he claimed was "unfair trade practices". Since then, both sides have exchanged several rounds of tit-for-tat measures.