“At a Crossroads” – Atlantic Council Addresses Rare Earth Elements in Central Asia

Photo: Atlantic Council

On January 23rd, the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and the International Tax and Investment Center gathered together the authors of the report, “Leveraging Central Asia’s Rare Earth Elements for Economic Growth.” The report highlights the potential of Central Asia, which has remained underappreciated in terms of its rare earth elements (REE) resources, despite its increasing geopolitical significance.

China currently dominates the global mining and refining of REEs, giving it a near-monopoly status. The report argues that this scenario calls for an urgent need to diversify global supply chains and suggests that Western investment could play a pivotal role in exploring and mining Central Asia’s REEs, thereby contributing to the diversification of supply chains.

Furthermore, such investment could have far-reaching implications for the region itself, bolstering regional integration and sovereignty, spurring economic growth, and enhancing economic freedom throughout Central Asia.

Opening the discussion, Ariel Cohen, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, highlighted the critical geopolitical location of Central Asia, stating that REEs “may be the next big thing in Central Asia at the engine of economic growth.” Cohen praised the “visionary multi-vector policy pioneered” in Kazakhstan by President Tokayev, and characterized Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia as “very fraught,” and defined by “multi-generational trauma. Nuclear energy is zero emission energy,” he said, but for the U.S. to capitalize on opportunities for mining REEs in Kazakhstan, “we need to do more and better.”

The President of Second Floor Strategies, a public policy consulting company, Wilder Alejandro Sánchez emphasized that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the most “forward-looking” nations in Central Asia in regard to REEs, whilst mining in Kyrgyzstan remains stuck in a “legal limbo,” and Tajikistan currently lacks the necessary critical infrastructure. Nether the less, he stated, REEs could become a driving factor behind regional “cooperation and integration.”

Wesley Hill, an International Program Manager at the Energy, Growth, and Security Program of the International Tax and Investment Center, spoke about the international relations components of REEs. “In the same way we competed and continued to compete for other energy resources, most especially crude oil, we will be competing for REEs,” he stated. “It’s happening already, this geopolitical clash [which is] primarily driven by competition between the United States and China. After the publication of this report, Beijing cut off all exports of rare earth element refining technologies to the United States. Central Asia is very much at a crossroads,” he stated.

Addressing this geopolitical conflict with China over REEs, Ambassador John Herbst, a Senior Director at the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, stated that Central Asia is a “critical region… rich in rare earth minerals [whilst] China is our principal adversary. They are not a friend of the United States.”

Finally, Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, characterized REEs as an “extremely important development opportunity” for Central Asia, particularly given “geostrategic energy realignment after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think it’s a geostrategic realignment opportunity for the governments of those countries to be a little bit less oriented towards China, or a little bit less reliant on Russia,” she stated.

According to the Brookings Institute, China is the dominant player in REEs, producing approximately 60% and processing 85% of the global output. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is the world’s largest producer of uranium – responsible for 33% of global output as of 2021 – a large amount of which is found in rare earth deposits.