Ohata prods China to ship rare earths

Kyodo News

Trade minister Akihiro Ohata said Sunday that he pressed Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Jiang Yaoping to normalize customs inspections on exports of rare earth metals to Japan and to avoid drastically reducing export quotas.

Jiang, who is in Tokyo to attend a forum to step up bilateral cooperation on energy conservation, repeated China’s stance that there is no embargo on the strategic resources but showed a willingness to avoid adverse impacts on economic ties, Ohata said.

Jiang was also quoted as saying to Ohata that China recently toughened customs inspections to “counter smuggling.”

Ohata stressed that the rare earth issue needs to be discussed by their leaders, who may meet in Hanoi on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings later in the month.

The dispute over rare earth exports, which are vital for high-tech products, emerged as ties soured following a maritime incident last month near the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China.

China said in July that it plans to reduce export quotas for rare earth metals this year by 40 percent from 2009, while a Chinese newspaper recently reported the quotas would be reduced “by 30 percent at most” in 2011.

Jiang told Ohata that the reason for the new export quotas is concern that the resources may “run out in 10 to 15 years if they are used at the current pace.”

Ohata asked China to revisit the idea of drastically reducing the quotas because of the impact it is having on companies worldwide. He also told Jiang that Japan is seeking to develop technologies to recycle the resources and that the technologies could be shared.

China accounts for 97 percent of the global output of rare earths, and Japan is nearly 90 percent dependent on China for its supply, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry says.

In a speech at the start of the forum, Ohata said the two countries need to work together.

“Japan and China have various issues, but it is essential that both countries make efforts to deepen our strategic, mutually beneficial relations from a broader standpoint,” he said.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, also attended the forum.

Ohata said he raised similar issues with Zhang on Thursday and got the same response, adding that he was unable to discuss the meeting with the media because of “security reasons.”

The annual Japan-China energy-saving and environmental forum began in 2006 with public- and private-sector participation.