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Despite what Black Ops II says, rare earth minerals will not cause a U.S.-China cold war

Despite what Black Ops II says, rare earth minerals will not cause a U.S.-China cold war

Alright, I can’t believe I need to say this, but the future will not look like Call of Duty.

The latest entry in the bestselling game series, Black Ops II, takes place in the not-too-distant future, a version of the year 2025 in which the United States and China are engaged in escalating tensions after a U.S. cyberattack hits the Chinese stock exchange, prompting officials in Beijing to halt exports of rare earth minerals. Chaos ensues. Drones! Invisibility cloaks! There’s a villainous Nicaraguan drug lord pulling strings for good measure, and David Petraeus is the secretary of defense.

The technology is science fiction, but the politics, that’s just fiction. You’d never know it by reading some of the responses, though. Probably as a result of game studio Treyarch’s effort to bolster the game with the input of some high-profile consultants, including Brookings Institute future-warfare expert Peter Singer and disgraced gun runner-turned-media personality Oliver North, some people are taking the game’s premise disturbingly seriously. Fox News’ review points to the game development’s "eerie resemblances with the serious war-gaming exercises conducted by the U.S. military and government officials," while CNN’s review explains that the expert consultants saw the "dwindling supply of rare earth elements" as "a feasible backdrop for a new Cold War."

Yes, China controls 95 percent of rare earth mineral production today, and that does constitute an "undisputed monopoly," as Hal Quinn and Michael Silver wrote in their editorial for the Washington Times. But there’s no reason for all this hyperventilating. Despite their name, rare earth minerals aren’t all that rare — the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the supply of these minerals, which are critical to high-tech gadgets from cell phones to advanced weapon systems, will last well into the next century, if not longer. Despite China’s current market dominance, Chinese reserves constitute only half of global rare earth supplies, and other countries — notably Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Australia — are beginning to exploit their deposits and become reliable suppliers in an increasingly diversified rare earth mineral marketplace.

As to whether competition over these resources could come to blows, Christine Parthemore, who now works in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs and is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against cold war alarmism in a Center for a New American Security report on rare earth minerals. "History," she wrote in 2011, "indicates that conflict over absolute scarcities is unlikely." While supply disruptions are possible, the report argues, they’ll look more like the 1973 oil crisis than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So let’s certainly open up different sources of rare earth mineral supplies, but let’s not have a collective freak out about a potential cold war with China over iPhone batteries. It really is just a video game.