Okinawan, Mongolian groups ink deal on rare earths

Kyodo

A Japan-China friendship group in Okinawa Prefecture has agreed to cooperate on procuring rare earth metals with a local goodwill group in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, sources familiar with the matter said Sunday.

The region is a major production base for rare earth minerals, which are crucial to making high-tech gadgets and appliances.

The two groups signed a mutual exchange agreement on Jan. 19 in Huhhot, the capital of the special region, that confirms they will cooperate on business involving rare earth metals, the sources said.

The deal, an unusual product of grassroots diplomacy, may help stabilize Japan’s supply of rare earth metals, sources said. More than 90 percent of the world’s rare earth metals come from China, with Inner Mongolia being the largest area of production.

The Okinawa side is looking to persuade high-tech companies to build manufacturing plants there, the sources said, adding that Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima may visit China at some point to promote business deals based on the agreement, which also includes economic, trade, cultural, environmental and tourism cooperation.

“We will discuss the details of business plans from now,” Koichiro Kokuba, head of the Okinawa group, said after the signing ceremony.

While China controls more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, a maritime spat in 2010 involving a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands disrupted exports of the elements to Japan.

The two countries are now aiming to enhance their strategic partnership ahead of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties in September, with local exchange plans and rare earth metals also on the agenda.

Okinawa has been making its own effort in developing strong ties with China to stimulate its economy. For example, production and screening of a movie featuring both Okinawa and Inner Mongolia is in the works, in addition to a plan to build a resort in northern Okinawa Prefecture based on Mongolian tents and culture.