DANIEL VAUGHAN: Three Cheers for Congress on filling National Defense Stockpile

 December 16, 2022

Congress passed, and President Biden is expected to sign the new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This military spending has seen some heated debate in the last month over things like vaccine mandates. Those provisions are important but overshadow more critical measures that aid the United States in combatting countries like China.

The most crucial section relates to the National Defense Stockpile. The Wall Street Journal reports that the NDAA authorizes the government "$1 billion to buy minerals such as hard-to-get metals and lithium-ion battery ingredients for the country's defense stockpile, which has been depleted in recent decades."

The stated reason is vital for this expenditure. Congress says this proposal is to "prevent shortages if Chinese suppliers decide to withhold critical minerals that they supply to U.S. manufacturers." As we've seen over the last three years, supply chains are critical domestically and abroad. We cannot simply assume that we'll be able to supply ourselves with the needed resources in a conflict.

China's COVID-19 supply chain chaos.

At the outset of COVID-19, the United States faced a massive shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Hospitals need masks, gloves, and more to do everyday tasks. One of the first things that happened in early 2020 was supply chains got snarled. Supplies sat on ships at sea or never left the country of origin.

Much like most products, China dominates this sector of the manufacturing industry. The Trump administration had to spend its early days negotiating for PPE from the Chinese Communist Party. Recall, we were in the middle of a trade war with China. And it wasn't just the federal government doing this; states and hospitals dealt with Chinese manufacturers too. We were in a bad position.

Part of the early mask shortage in 2020 was due entirely to China. They got hit with the virus first. In January 2020, they began buying up all the masks on the market. When you own most of the manufacturing might for a product and buy it all up, you have a de facto monopoly in the middle of a pandemic.

The United States was eventually able to negotiate these shortages and build domestic answers. But PPE is an elementary item that doesn't require rare minerals. COVID-19 should serve as a lesson that we cannot depend on other countries to fulfill our needs in an emergency. Free trade is excellent during peacetime. But in global conflict, countries in competition with each other won't cooperate.

China dominates rare earth minerals.

For years, China has sought to dominate the rare earth minerals and other economic sectors. At one point, it owned almost sole ownership of all rare earth minerals, "Tellingly, China's share of global rare earth metals production slipped from 80% in 2017 to 60% in 2021, according to the U.S. Geological Service." Lowering China's hold on this market is one of the better victories of the Trump administration.

Maiya Clark, the Senior Research Associate at the Center for National Defense for the Heritage Foundation, sums up the importance of rare earth minerals:

China—the United States' chief global competitor—is either the sole supplier or a primary supplier of many of the minerals and materials used in defense manufacturing. Unlike the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States were economically independent of each other, today the United States depends on China and other Asian countries for numerous strategic materials. This could give China leverage over the United States in a potential armed conflict.

She goes on to argue that the United States should beef up its supplies in the National Defense Stockpile. She's right, and Congress is right to pour more funding into this area. In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we've witnessed Vladimir Putin use a variety of economic and cultural levers to try and manipulate Europe and the United States.

Congress prepares US for conflict with China.

The United States has had to push back hard on those policies from Russia. We want to avoid being in a similar situation with China in any other area. Given the differing views of China and the United States and our capacity to clash on policy worldwide, we need to be independent of China in all areas.

A National Defense Stockpile of critical resources that inhibits China's leverage over us is vital. China isn't the only concern here. Americans should have this stockpile to help us remain independent from everyone, even as we remain the most powerful country on the planet.

Maintaining our strength and posture is a constant task. I'm glad to see Congress prioritizing this in the new NDAA by pouring resources into our stockpile and reserves. This NDAA is an excellent first step, and we should look for more ways to prepare ourselves for whatever events come our way.

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