At one point in Diamonds Are Forever, the 1971 James Bond thriller, Agent 007 asks the villain, who has covertly amassed a stockpile of valuable gems: "What do you intend to do with those diamonds?"
"An excellent question," the evil criminal mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, replies with a diabolical grin. "And one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon." Bond gets his answer quickly enough: a satellite-rigged laser powerful enough to hold the world hostage.
Hu Jintao is no Blofeld, but if Chinese leaders are trying to provide a readymade plot for the next Bond film, they may have succeeded with today's news that China has quietly begun blocking Japan's supply of rare earth elements, used in everything from Priuses and iPads to wind turbines, oil refineries, and smart bombs.
Such a move, which Chinese officials have denied, would represent a sharp, sudden escalation in the ongoing diplomatic dispute between China and Japan over an island chain in the East China Sea. Real or imagined, the threat is credible, and it's been a long time coming.
In 1992, Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, reportedly declared, "There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China." His comment spawned a crash program to develop and exploit China's vast reserves of the metals, estimated at 57 percent of the world total. It wasn't easy: Though most of the 17 elements known as rare earth minerals (numbers 57 through 71, as well as a couple others, on the periodic table) are not actually all that rare, they are difficult and costly to extract. Seven years after Deng's remarks, his successor Jiang Zemin ordered the Chinese state to go a step further. "Improve the development and applications of rare earth," he instructed, "and change the resource advantage into economic superiority."
If anything, Deng was too generous to the Middle East, which today pumps less than half the world's oil and still relies heavily on Western expertise. Today, China has become dominant in rare earths in ways the Saudi royal family could only dream, driving others out of the business, and now controls as much as 97 percent of the global market. According to a recent paper by Cindy Hurst, an analyst for the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office, that figure may even understate China's supremacy: Beijing has also poured untold millions into basic and applied research on rare earth elements, and runs two state laboratories employing hundreds of scientists devoted exclusively to the subject. The world's only two journals dedicated to rare earth metals are in Chinese.