China blocks exports to Japan


Chinese customs officials are halting shipments to Japan of so-called rare earth elements, preventing them from being loaded aboard ships this week at Chinese ports, three industry officials said on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao personally called for Japan’s release of the captain, who was detained after his vessel collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships about 40 minutes apart as he tried to fish in waters controlled by Japan but long claimed by China. Wen threatened unspecified further actions if Japan did not comply.

China mines 93 per cent of the world’s rare earth minerals, and more than 99 per cent of the world’s supply of some of the most prized rare earths, which sell for several hundred dollars a pound.

Industry officials said mainland China’s customs agency had notified companies that they were not allowed to ship to Japan any rare earth oxides, rare earth salts or pure rare earth metals, although the shipments are still allowed to go to Hong Kong and Singapore. But no ban has been imposed on the export to Japan of semi-processed alloys that combine rare earths with other materials.

Toyota, which makes the Prius hybrid car, had not yet received any information on an embargo and was unable to comment, a spokesman for Toyota in Tokyo, Masami Doi, said.

Japan has been the main buyer of Chinese rare earths for many years, using them for a wide range of industrial purposes, like making glass for solar panels. They are also used in small steering control motors in conventional gasoline-powered cars as well as in motors that help propel hybrid cars.

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