Today we've got a rare earths problem with China, an anti-separatism bill in France, and a fresh US-Turkey spat. As a bonus, which US states are vaccinating the fastest?


Alex Kliment


Today we've got a rare earths problem with China, an anti-separatism bill in France, and a fresh US-Turkey spat. As a bonus, which US states are vaccinating the fastest?


Alex Kliment


China now controls more than 80 percent of the world's supply of something that surrounds you all day, every day. And, according to the Financial Times [paywall], Beijing is threatening to cut the supply of that thing to the US. What are we talking about? Rare earths metals.

What are rare earth metals and why should you care about them? Rare earth metals are critical for manufacturing just about every electronic device that you, and all of the world's modern militaries, use every day. They're essential for making screens, hard drives, and precision glass.

Without rare earths, you can't use a cell phone, save a document, watch a Netflix series, drive a new car, take a digital photograph, fly a drone, target a missile, or build a fighter jet. You wouldn't even be able to read Signal — though we promise to make hard copies available if it comes to that.

It just so happens that China has a near-monopoly on the business of refining these metals for use in manufacturing. Since the 1990s, when environmental regulations in the US made it cheaper to refine rare earths in China, Beijing's share of the industry has risen from about 30 percent to more than 80 percent today. With that kind of market power, China can throw its weight around, and the US-China rivalry over technology creates a powerful incentive to do just that.

What is China threatening? According to the Financial Times scoop, China is conducting a fresh study to determine whether cutting off rare earths exports to the US would cripple the US defense industry, which relies on the stuff to make all of its key weapons systems. A single F-35 fighter jet, for example, contains close to 1,000 pounds of rare earths metals, according to a US congressional report.

The Pentagon knows all this, right? Of course. For years, Pentagon planners have been looking for ways to secure more access to rare earths mines, in particular by making inroads in southern African countries that are rich in reserves. And the Trump administration last year issued an emergency order to boost rare earths production in the US.

But the challenge isn't so much in finding rare earths — which are, despite their name, present all over the world, including in the US. It's extracting them and then refining them that costs and pollutes a lot. Private investors haven't been able to make it profitable under US rules, so US agencies and lawmakers have explored subsidizing production or making regulatory changes that make more rare earths available for refining.

But for a Biden administration that has put environmental protection at the center of its agenda, this could mean a tough tradeoff: protect the defense industry and Silicon Valley, or protect the environment.

Would China really do this? Cutting off rare earth supplies to the US would be a huge blow to the US defense industry, and could also complicate things for Silicon Valley, which relies on Chinese rare earths as well — though less so because so much of their manufacturing is actually in China at the moment.

Washington would almost certainly respond with severe sanctions or export limitations of its own. The US has already moved to limit China's ability to buy semiconductors, an area where China is almost entirely dependent on the outside world, in particular on Taiwan.

But there's another consideration for China — don't rock your own boat. By threatening to cut rare earths supply, the Chinese government adds to other countries' sense of urgency about developing their own mining and refining. While that obviously won't happen overnight, the threat of losing access to 80-90 percent of the world's rare earths supply would accelerate things significantly.



After the Trump administration largely left it to state governments to sort out the logistics of COVID vaccinations, the Biden White House has said it wants to apply a more top-down approach, giving states greater transparency about when they can expect new batches and using executive powers to boost vaccine-related supply chains. It remains to be seen if that will dramatically change what has so far been a patch-worked and inconsistent rollout in which some states — and counties — have simply been more efficient than others at getting needles into arms. We take a look at which US states have vaccinated the most — and least — number of people, and how many doses they've received that have so far gone unused.



A healthy democracy depends on healthy journalism. News organizations aren't getting their share of the revenue their content helps generate. The Australian government has developed an innovative proposal that would require tech gatekeepers to share search revenue with local independent news organizations. Their approach is a potential model for other countries, too. Microsoft supports this approach. To read five fast facts about the proposals, visit Microsoft On The Issues.



Catalonia's post-election mess: Spain's pro-union Socialist Party (which leads the national coalition government in Spain) won the most votes in Sunday's regional election in Catalonia. But for the first time ever, pro-independence parties collectively came ahead in the popular vote, reaping a majority of seats (though voter turnout was dismal). Separatist forces will now band together to form yet another government in Catalonia that will prioritize breaking away from Spain, and may again try to secede unilaterally. Adding to Catalonia's political polarization, the far-right Vox party won almost 10 percent of the ballots cast with a fiery anti-independence, anti-immigration message that resonated with some unionist Catalans. The result puts Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in a bind: he needs pro-independence parties to get legislation passed in the national parliament, but giving them what they want — a pardon for the Catalan politicians convicted of secession for the events of 2017 and more autonomy for the region — would be immensely unpopular among voters in the rest of the country, and could encourage many of them to gravitate towards Vox. Your move, Don Pedro.

France's anti-separatism bill: The French parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of legislation aimed at curbing what President Emmanuel Macron has called "Islamic-separatism," and strengthening France's secular character. The bill's 51 articles include limits on homeschooling, fines — and even jail time — for doctors that conduct so-called "virginity tests" for Muslim women, as well as harsher penalties for online hate speech. Critics say the new law is discriminatory, unfairly targeting 5.7 million French Muslims, and does not reflect France's contemporary melting-pot culture. But proponents of the bill — among them many imams — argue that the new measures are necessary as France grapples with a resurgence of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. Indeed, the gruesome beheading of a teacher outside Paris last fall, followed by a deadly rampage at a church several days later in Nice, sent shockwaves through a country that has lost more of its people to terror attacks in recent years than any other Western country. But there's also a political dimension at play: Macron faces a tough reelection battle in 2022, and currently trails his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the polls while his own approval rating remains sluggish. Will inching closer to the right help Macron's reelection bid?

Turkey hits US over Kurds: Weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken angered Ankara by saying it wasn't acting like a NATO ally because of its purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defense system, US-Turkey relations have deteriorated further. This time, Turkey has blasted Washington for questioning the reported involvement of Kurdish militants in the execution of 13 Turkish hostages in northern Iraq, summoning the US ambassador for a scolding (Turkey, which considers Kurdish militants to be terrorists, also criticized Washington's ongoing support for the Kurds in Syria). As Turkish journalist İpek Yezdani told GZERO Media last fall, Turkey's pugnacious President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no fan of US President Joe Biden, who a year ago irked Erdogan by calling for the opposition to beat him in the next election. By contrast, Trump appeased Erdogan by withdrawing US troops from northern Syria. We're watching to see how frosty US-Turkey ties will get in the near term — and if Erdogan and Biden will find any common ground.



It's Wednesday, the end is in sight. Here are our weekly recs for how to spend whatever free time you can wring out.

Read — Animal Farm: Fear is used to consolidate power. Truth is manipulated to maintain control. Anger about politics boils over into violence. George Orwell's classic satirical allegory of Stalin's USSR may have been published in 1945, but the work transcends time and place, which is why Willis just read it again and thinks you should too. The story continues.

Listen — Unfair: When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2014, it sparked a debate in her parents' home country of India: was her skin too dark to be considered beautiful there? That's the jumping off point for this multi-part podcast about the business, politics, and prejudices that underpin the multibillion-dollar industry for skin-lightening products around the world. Why are so many women — and increasingly, men — convinced that lightening their skin is the path to a more successful life? What can be done about this "colorism"? Alex is up to episode three and likes it so far.

Watch — The Prison Where I Live: Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar, was a comedian in Myanmar who spent 20 years in jail for mocking the military junta. Carlos, who knows a thing or two about Myanmar, recommends this 2010 documentary by British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein and German humorist Michael Mittermeier which tracks Zarganar's lifelong quest to call out the generals' abuses through satire. With Myanmar falling under the pall of military dictatorship once again, it's as timely as ever.

Read: The Adversary: In January 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, a middle aged Frenchman living near the Swiss border, killed his entire family — wife, children, and parents. Many people wanted to know what had suddenly cracked in this seemingly normal family man, but Romand agreed to share his full account only with French journalist Emmanuel Carrere, whose book — which Gabrielle was recently engrossed in — poses a daunting question: How could someone build a life of such deceit with no one finding out?



20: Myanmar's junta has threatened anti-coup protesters with up to 20 years in prison if they continue to incite "hatred and contempt" against the generals. In its bid to stop the rallies, which erupted after its coup against the democratically elected government, the military has deployed armored vehicles in major cities and cut off the internet.

164: All 164 member countries of the World Trade Organization voted on Monday to appoint Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new director-general. Okonjo-Iweala — a former Nigerian finance minister — is the first woman and African to lead the WTO, and her tenure begins at a crucial time for the organization, which faces growing pandemic-fueled protectionism and rising trade tensions between China and Western nations.

1,200: Chad will deploy 1,200 soldiers to fight a jihadist insurgency in the border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Chadian President Idriss Deby is putting pressure on other Sahel countries to strengthen the so-called Sahel G5 Joint Force regional military contingency to offset a possible troop drawdown by former colonial power France, which Paris now says will not take place immediately.

487: The Peruvian government acknowledged that 487 current and former officials used their positions of power to jump the queue and get early COVID vaccinations intended for Peru's healthcare workers. The scandal has hit former president Martín Vizcarra, who confirmed getting the jab before he was impeached last November, an episode that plunged the country into its current political crisis.



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This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Carlos Santamaria, Willis Sparks, and Alex Kliment. The art was made by Gabriella Turrisi and the graphic by Paige Fusco. Spiritual counsel from father of "the sauce" — RIP Johnny Pacheco.


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