Outside the Box: If we want to make it all in America, we must start by mining it all in America

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President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech came just as the United States has abruptly entered a new post-post-Cold War era. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has quickly altered the global picture—and the president acknowledged the strategic impacts. 

As with any State of the Union speech, there were calculated nods to electoral politics. And this certainly included the president’s call for “Buy American” policies—which tracks closely with consumers’ overwhelmingly preference for “Made in USA.”

New approach needed

But the stark truth is that the United States is now staring down the twin threats of a belligerent Russia and China. And that will require a new, cold war approach.

Essentially, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and China’s open support—there’s more urgency than ever for bringing critical supply chains back to the United States. We see this clearly, even as the world is actively sanctioning Russia. Russia’s energy leverage over Europe—including its threat to halt essential natural-gas supplies—is a stark reminder of America’s alarming overreliance on supply chains dominated by China.

In this new era, if Beijing also decided to invade a sovereign nation, it would be nearly impossible for the United States to impose sanctions on China. Why? Because China supplies much of the goods and materials on which the United States depends. And that includes everything from medications and antibiotics to the very minerals and metals that underpin America’s entire industrial economy, including our renewable energy ambitions.

Start at the source

If Biden is really serious about rebuilding American industry—and ramping up national self-sufficiency—he must indeed start at the source. And that means rapidly developing domestic sources for the critical minerals that make advanced technologies possible.

The president may have admitted as much when he made a call for goods to be “made in America from beginning to end. All of it. All of it.”

This is precisely the issue, since mining and minerals are the launching point for everything from electronics and medical devices to solar panels and electric vehicles. And it’s also America’s current Achilles’ heel—as Beijing well knows.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America’s dependence on imported metals and minerals is actually growing worse each year. The United States now depends on imports for more than half of its entire supply of 47 different minerals used in a variety of manufacturing industries. Even worse, the U.S. is now 100% reliant on imports for 17 of these essential minerals. And most of them come from China.

China knows exactly how important these raw materials are, since minerals are the building blocks for emerging technologies such as electric vehicles. Beijing has smartly made itself the leading supplier to the United States for 16 of these critically needed minerals—including the rare-earth metals necessary for not just EVs but also solar panels and wind turbines.

Empty boast?

Biden has heralded a return to made-in-America with investments in semiconductor and battery manufacturing plants. But that’s an empty boast if the materials needed to make these technologies are controlled by Beijing. 

All of this tells us that the president’s call for “Made in America” will be meaningless unless it’s also “Mined in America.” 

Meeting the material needs of tomorrow—and reindustrializing our nation—will require a whole-of-government approach. And that must start with a renewed commitment to improving the competitiveness of U.S. mining, including approval for new mining operations.

It should also mean real action behind the president’s words about buying American-made. The government’s vast purchasing power can be an important tool for developing the secure mineral supply chains that our economy and national security demand

Helpfully, the United States possesses ample domestic resources. But these important commodities are sitting in the ground—even as our nation continues to rely on toxic mining practices in China. That must change, if the Biden administration is to begin the urgent task of rebuilding domestic manufacturing. 

Washington must get on a wartime footing—and act decisively to break America’s reliance on China’s supply chains. It’s past time to rebuild America’s industrial base from the ground up—and re-establish secure, domestic supply chains in order to secure America’s future in a more adversarial world.

Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Follow him at @michael_stumo

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