Discovery Of Centuries Worth Of Seven Rare Earth Elements On Disputed Island Chain Portends Conflict Between Japan And Russia

 

It is often times said that it is never the big things in life that pose a threat to man, an endeavor, or a thing, but the little things. For example, when hiking in the woods, many people worry about being attacked by a bear or a wolf, or getting lost and dying for lack of water and food. While these are concerns and people have died of them, the bigger threat comes from microscopic parasites in the water and certain types of undercooked or uncooked food that will guarantee either death or a debilitating sickness that can lead to death, or the subclass of Acari parasites in the Arachnid family that can bite without knowledge and spread diseases that can cause lifelong health problems and result in death. The reverse also can be true, where the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” apples. For example, there are countless stories in the Church of people who have lived very evil lives but by the prayers of one or a few people they have been saved from destruction. One example is that of St. Augustine and the prayers for him by his mother St. Monica to deliver him from all forms of heresy, apostasy, and hedonism that defined his life for decades.

According to a confidential interview with a leading member of the Peron government of Argentina in 1948 that has since been declassified from documents in the CIA archives, he stated that not only did he believe World War III was inevitable in the future, but that it would be fought over ideology and not political or material concerns:

I wrote a full analysis of what the ideological side may constitute based upon available evidence that you can read here.

Since the interview clearly states that material needs will not be the reason for such a war, and given how in all wars a tremendous amount of materials are consumed in the production of goods for soldiers and war munitions, his statement assumes that whenever the conflict begins, at least for one of the sides involved, their material needs will already be satisfied because they will have already secured access to needed resources.

The world is a fascinating place because each area has her own unique distribution of resources, and while most elements and minerals can be found all around the world in the smallest of quantities, it is their concentration and ability to detect and exploit in an economically viable matter said materials for a given area that matters. For example, using the example of platinum, the US has a platinum mine in Colorado, but given the quantities that she needs for her economic and military needs, she must secure resources in other locations, which is where her interests in South Africa come out of, as South Africa has some of the largest platinum mines in the world.

Conflicts historically take place when a country needs a particular resource but is denied access to it by another nation. If the nation which needs the resource is large enough or powerful enough, and the other nation is small or weak enough, and trade cannot be made to secure a degree of access to said resource, the larger nation may attempt to invade and seize said assets for itself from the smaller.

This kind of fight is a constant theme of human history that usually is a sign of an impending and larger war. It was what happened with the Scramble for Africa of the 19th century that was the lead up to World War I. Africa is a place of great concern because the dark Continent is filled with vast natural resources that are only partially tapped, and based on research estimates have much larger quantities of oil, minerals, and other resources waiting to be exploited. Even in nations such as South Africa, which possess some of the world’s largest deposits of platinum and platinum-family rare elements as well as chromium, all of which are needed for heavy industrial processes and superconductive materials, her resources are so vast that the US and NATO are directly competing with the Chinese for access to her abundant natural wealth.

This modern day scramble for Africa is not limited to just the US and the Chinese. The Germans are feverishly working with NATO and in her former colonies in Western and Southern Africa at the same time she has been aggressively working with the US and Turkey to build a comprehensive network of rail lines and pipelines to transport oil from the oil-sands of Azerbaijan and all throughout the Turanian Basin region to Europe. This is because she knows, based on logistical information and her losses in World War I and World War II, that her success or failure to conclusively secure oil access to this area will mean victory or defeat over Russia in the event of a war. She wants to create such a large, comprehensive, interconnected, and universally accessible by many nations means of transport that not only will it be difficult for Russia to shut down her network, but that if Russia does, the effects would be so serious against her neighbors not involved in a conflict that they would turn against Russia.

The geopolitical concerns for access to resources between the US/NATO and Russia differ based on their locations and resources held within them. Russia is the largest nation on Earth, at 1.8 times the size of all 50 US states and stretches from the Black and Barents Seas in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and given her location easily has direct control over half of the region north of the Arctic Circle. Her influence extends to China and into Central Asia as well as the borders of the Middle East, giving her an impressive amount of land to explore and tremendous amounts of resources to exploit. Using the example again of platinum and platinum ore, Russia has platinum mining operations in South Africa, but they are comparatively small to that which the US and China have, as Russia is already a major platinum producer based on her resources in Siberia. If she were to lose access to her mines in South Africa, while she would be angry and may retaliate, it would not affect her industrial processes as she would simply rely on her already abundant supplies in her own nation. If the US were to lose access, it would be considered an act of war because it would directly affect her and would cause long-term averse consequences.

As mentioned above, one of the most serious problems that a powerful nation can face is when it needs access to resources from another powerful nation and is being denied them and does not have the ability to get around said access to such materials such as through direct asset seizure. It can become even worse if the area is in a “contested” area between major powers, as a small argument could lead to a serious fight.

This is the situation that Russia finds herself in with her eastern neighbor and historical enemy of Japan, where a fight over a tiny island archipelago controlled by Russia, called the Kuril Islands by Russia and the Chishima Islands of Japan that has lasted for decades is preparing to intensify.

The reasons for the fight over the Kuril/Chishima Islands are numerous. There is evidence to suggest that the archipelago, which was previously settled by the Ainu people, received the arrival of both Japanese and Russian traders at the approximately the same time during the 18th century, giving rise to a multiplicity of historical claims to the islands. The island chain is especially strategic for Russia because while Russia is a large nation and touches many bodies of water, she is so close to the Arctic that all of her water-access ports freeze over during the wintertime, effectively reducing her to a landlocked nation with limited ability to travel or trade by sea until springtime. The only two sea ports she has access to in the winter are in the West through the Dardanelles from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and in the east from between the islands of Kunashir and Iturup in the Kuril archipelago by way of Vladivostok through the Sea of Japan.

While both routes are extremely dangerous as they are in close proximity to her two major historical enemies, Turkey and Japan, they are still her only means of passage, and Russia is determined to see that she maintains her access to them. It is one of the many reasons why Russia immediately annexed Crimea from Ukraine when the conflict in Ukraine began, and is a major geostrategic region why she insists on holding the Kuril Islands in spite of constant protests from Japan which have only grown louder with the increase in Japanese nationalism.

However, there is another major reason why Russia wants to hold onto the Kurils and why Japan wants to take them from her.

The Dutch under Martin Vries during the 17th century explored these islands and originally named one of the largest one, Iturup, as Staten Island during his search for gold. While he did not find the gold he sought, it was discovered several hundred years after his quest that there are things far more valuable than gold there. To the surprise of many scientists, the Islands have been found to be a tremendous source of some of the rarest elements on the periodic table in the world. These include Rhenium (Re-75), Dysprosium (Dy-66), Erbium (Er-68), Europium (Eu-63), Indium (In-49), Terbium (Tb-65), and Yttrium (Y-39), all of which are absolutely critical for developing current and future technologies and without them life as it exists today would be left to the pages of science fiction.

According to news reports, the concentrations of these elements in these islands is so high that current supplies based on what has been identified are able to meet industrial demands for centuries to come:

Japan’s industrial evolution over the next several hundred years has received a major boost with confirmation that millions of tonnes of rare earth minerals exist just off the country’s coast.

News of the valuable discovery – which potentially frees Japanese firms from costly foreign mineral imports – came on April 10 when scientists from the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) published findings in the UK journal Scientific Reports.

The study said mud from the seabed off the Ogasawara Islands, some 2,000km southeast of Tokyo, contains high concentrations – in some cases nearly 8,000 parts per million – of rare earth elements and yttrium (REY).

“This REY-rich mud has great potential as a rare-earth metal resource because of the enormous amount available and its advantageous mineralogical features,” the report stated.

Researchers defined a 400 sq km stretch of seabed that they estimate contains 16 million tonnes of rare earth oxides, including enough yttrium to cater 780 years of domestic demand, 620 years worth of europium, 420 years of terbium and 730 years of dysprosium.

Europium is vital in the development of phosphors and ceramics and has applications in the defence and nuclear sectors. Terbium and dysprosium are also critical in defence technologies, ceramics and advanced magnets.

The research goes as far as to claim the large deposit “has the potential to supply these metals on a semi-infinite basis to the world”.

But a number of hurdles still need to be overcome before the minerals can be put to use – not least the challenge of mining the seabed at depths near 6,000 metres in an extremely remote part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But the government seems committed to developing the resources.

“Back in 2000, when the dispute between China and Japan over the islands in the East China Sea blew up, Beijing effectively imposed an embargo on rare earth minerals being sold to Japan, although they denied it,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.

“These elements are critical for future generations of technology and Tokyo responded by immediately seeking out new sources, including Mongolia, in order to secure shipments and maintain Japan’s technological edge.”

Ideally, however, Tokyo wanted to secure its own resources in order to not be reliant on any other nations for supplies, Nagy said.

Nagy said Japan has invested heavily in scouring the seabed within its EEZ to locate such mineral deposits, and this discovery justifies Tokyo’s efforts to win international recognition for its sovereignty over a large part of the western Pacific, including around the remote atoll of Okinotorishima.

Both China and South Korea have both opposed Okinotorishima being recognised as an island and instead claim it is an atoll that is unable to support human habitation and should therefore not be used to extend Japan’s EEZ. (source, source)

He who controls access to these rare earth elements can not only earn great sums of money selling them to other nations, but can secure one’s technological future. Since it has been discussed that the nation which can develop the best supercomputers and artificial intelligence will have the greatest chance of winning a future conflict, and because said elements are necessary to develop such technologies, he who controls the raw materials that will compose the computers of the future has a greater chance at victory in war.

The seven elements and their uses

Rhenium

Rhenium is one of the rarest minerals on Earth. Originally isolated from gadolinite (also known as ytterbite) found in parts of Norway, Sweden, and parts of Texas and Colorado, rhenium is usually collected as an impurity from molybdenium production.

Declassified CIA documents from 1950 show that the government had already identified the importance of rhenium for future technologies, noting that the mineral was not only critical to many upcoming industrial processes and would likely be important for the future, but that it also would be a source of mining other rare-earth minerals that could be valuable in the future:

Chile is currently the largest producer of Rhenium in the world along with the US, Peru, and Poland. While the Russians dominate in the production of ammonium perrhenate, which is the most commonly consumed form of the metal through their satellite nation of Kazakhstan, it is still less than half of what the US produces. This is even less than Japan, which has aspirations of empire and of which she needs said metal to continue to maintain herself as a technological power.

Rhenium’s major use is in the preservation of metals at extremely high temperatures, electrical states, or chemical substances.

Dysprosium

Dysprosium is a rare-earth element metal that is highly reactive, and in powder form can ignite with near spontaneity in air and has a fire that cannot be extinguished by water, but reacts to it similar to the reaction between a pure alkali metal and water, thus meaning it is neither found in isolation in nature nor has there been found a mineral in nature which possesses dysprosium as a majority element.

The reaction of sodium metal (Na) with water (H2O). Sodium burns in water, and in large enough quantity will explode.

Depending on the amount of heat the metal is subjected to, when electricity is passed through it, it has the ability to change magnetic states. When mixed with other metals, it can induce various states of magnetization. It also has the ability to absorb neutrons, making it highly useful in high-intensity light and atomic applications. Its applications are broad and include use in smart phones, superconductors, lasers, and nuclear equipment. It’s importance is so significant that in a 1955 declassified CIA document that is still heavily redacted, it reports on the focus of the East German government in attempting to identify and further research dysprosium supplies:

China currently has the largest lock on the dysprosium market, with the US a distant second. Given the limited supplies currently known, and the fact that China has consistently overcharged Japan for access to dysprosium, the discovery of dysprosium in rock formations in the Kuril Islands has the ability to give he who controls those islands independence from Chinese shipments as well as to put her as a potential competitor against China. In the case of Japan, it means independence from and potential domination over China, something which she has desired throughout her history.

 

Erbium

Erbium is similar to dysprosium in that she is able to change her magnetic states and is able to absorb neutrons, making it useful in laser applications, nuclear technology, and superconductors. The difference is that erbium is less reactive and more stable that dysprosium at high temperatures, and when mixed with other metals such as nickel, it is able to used for supercooling and cryogenics. It is also used for improving infrared absorption for glass as well as in fiber optic lines. According to a recent study, it is said that demand for erbium will increase for applications in nuclear medicine:

Radium-223 has been the highest recommended type of radionucleotide in radiopharmaceuticals market. While it currently accounts for a whopping 78% share in the global market revenue, it is more likely that Erbium-169 that has been witnessing higher traction in recent past would witness relatively higher revenue growth in coming years. The report forecasts over 20% year on year revenue growth for Erbium-169 in 2019. (source, source)

 

Europium

Europium is the most reactive of the rare-earth metals, reacting immediately with air upon exposure. It was also the least used in a diversity of applications, as its reactivity almost exclusively reduced it to laser and ultraviolet light applications. However, recent research has shown europium able to assist with extensive and long-term data storage in quantum memory computer chips for advanced robotics.

 

Indium

Discovered in 1863 by German scientists, indium is one of the most common of the rare-earth metals but is highly versatile in its applications. It was first used to stabilize bearings and non-ferrous metals under high-heat applications, but soon moved to film and semiconductor processing, where it became an integral material in the production of microchips and LCD screens. Much indium is recovered by recycling, and among that which is mined China is a leading producer followed closely by South Korea and then Japan.

Japan does not have a shortage of indium. However, since the metal is needed by Russia for her industrial work. A declassified CIA report from 1954 indicates that while indium production and consumption statistics were at the time unknown, that Russia showed a need to purchase indium from the US, and that the potential for shortages could develop if further technological uses for the material became relevant:

This has clearly taken place, as indium’s use since the 1950s has greatly expanded. Given that Russia is not a major producer of this and that the Kuril Islands are a major supply of it for her, she is not going to be inclined to surrender them.

 

Terbium

Terbium is another highly reactive metal in air, and so is frequently used for ultraviolet or fluorescent applications. It is also the most magnetically active and unique metal in that it is both sensitive to magnetic fields as well as can change shape when magnetic fields are applied to it. Recent scientific research into terbium has revealed even more strange properties, that could allow for the operation of superconductors is extreme temperatures with even greater efficiency:

The quantum spin liquid state was theoretically proposed by the Nobel laureate Philip Anderson in 1973.

In quantum spin liquids, magnetic moments behave like a liquid and do not freeze or order even at absolute zero, giving rise to several extraordinary materials properties.

The materialization of quantum spin liquids is still widely contested. As such, the discovery and exploration of new materials that may host this state of matter are active areas of advanced materials research and have potential applications in the development of quantum computing.

Using cutting-edge experimental technologies, including inelastic neutron scattering and muon spectroscopy, University of Liverpool’s Dr. Lucy Clark and colleagues discovered that the exotic quantum state in TbInO3 emerges from the complexity of the local environment around the magnetic ions in the material, in this case, of the rare-earth element terbium.

The discovery came as a surprise to the team as TbInO3 is a material not expected to display such unusual magnetic behavior based on its crystal structure.

“When studying intricate quantum states of matter like the quantum spin liquid, carrying out one experiment often raises more questions than it can answer,” Dr. Clark said.

“In the case of TbInO3, however, the physics is particularly rich, and so we were especially driven to persevere.”

“Our study shows that TbInO3 is a fascinating magnetic material, and one most likely to have many more intriguing properties for us yet to uncover.”

“This material appears deceptively simple, with terbium spins decorating a two-dimensional, triangular architecture,” said Professor Bruce Gaulin, Director of the Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research at McMaster University.

“But with the full complement of modern experimental techniques at our disposal, the low-temperature magnetism of this structure, based on two distinct terbium environments, exhibits an altogether exotic quantum disordered state of matter — an unexpected and exciting result.” (source, source)

 

Yttrium

Yttrium is another rare metal used in superconductors, lasers, and a host of other applications. It is relatively stable, more commonly found, and is used is superconductors and microchips like indium. However, yttrium has been shown to be able to withstand extreme temperatures, making it useful for microchips subjected to abnormally hot or cold conditions.

***

A recent op-ed piece from the Moscow Times suggests that the conflict between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands is one of arrogance and simple geopolitics, with neither side wanting to appear to be a “loser”:

The main issue here, however, is not one of different approaches to preparing and signing a peace treaty, but a deeper, more existential question. For Japan, а solution in which Russia returns any territory at all is an important milestone in overcoming its insecurity of a “losing power” that must constantly apologize for its past sins. For Russia, whose national identity is based on being the absolute winner of World War II , any territorial concession to Japan, even in accordance with international law, would be seen as a “capitulation” that undermines the legitimacy of Russia’s status as a great power.

It’s ambitious to expect that both sides will come to a definitive compromise and put an end to the territorial dispute while the question of border lines is tied to a peace treaty declaring the outcome of the war. The solution will inevitably be an uneven one, with one of the sides being labeled as the winner. A more realistic alternative would be an “untethering” of the island debate from the peace treaty and reclassifying the island debate strictly as a problem of border delimitation. In fact, Russia and Japan decided on this approach over twenty years ago, agreeing to create a commission on border delimitation.

However, in today’s political climate, in which the peace treaty is seen as key to successful bilateral relations, it’s hard to expect that the dispute over the Kurils will cease being a heated topic for both sides. It’s also equally hard to expect that a solution will be found by “speeding up” dialogues regarding the peace treaty, even when there is good personal chemistry between the two leaders.

At the same time, Russia and Japan share too many mutual interests to allow the contradictions of the territorial dispute to ruin the many positive sides of their relationship. The general trajectory of international political development in Eastern Asian, which is marked by a geopolitical shift in the balance of power towards China and the weakening of U.S.’ global position, naturally propels Japan and Russia towards closer relations. (source, source)

This is nothing but a cover for the reality, that while human arrogance is always present to some degree in national dealings, these talks were destined to fail from the beginning because there is no resolution to them as the real issue is deeper than one of a mere power struggle between two nations. It has nothing to do with any supposed “decline” of American power. Rather, the entire conflict is about Russian sea access for its Navy and most importantly, over access to centuries worth of rare-earth minerals that both nations want, need, and could determine the winner or loser of the coming conflict between the two nations before it begins.

Japan is going to continue to build up her military presence in the region, as well as Russia. It will be important to watch economic development in the archipelago, and what companies are contracted with to perform the tasks of extracting and refining the mineral ores, as the miners will stand to profit handsomely regardless of what the side is..

Just as it is the small things in life that can determine the difference between life and death or health and sickness, so it may be that a small island chain in Pacific Ocean may determine the winner of what will be another inevitable war between Russia and Japan.

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