China’s Weaponization of Gallium and Germanium: The Pitfalls of Leveraging Chokepoints Briefings de l'Ifri, July 27, 2023
China’s recent announcement of raw material export controls highlights important pitfalls of weaponized interdependence and demonstrates that not all chokepoints are created equal.
On July 3, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that from August it would restrict exports of raw gallium and germanium as well as products derived from these two metals. China dominates global supply of both elements, which are important notably in the production of semiconductors for electric vehicles, 5G telecommunications infrastructure, renewable energy technologies, as well as in other important uses such as LED lighting, fiberoptic cables or various space and military applications. They are, as of today, critical raw materials for enabling the twin transitions toward a digital, carbon-neutral future.
The measures will come nine months after the United States (US), in a major shift of strategy to stymie China’s technological development in dual-use fields, unveiled stinging export controls on the most advanced range of semiconductors, as well as the tools and knowhow needed to produce them. China’s direct response to this scaling up of American pressure in high-tech domains has been slow to emerge, and its decision to signal a willingness to leverage its raw material advantage is a significant step with potentially far-reaching implications.
But Beijing’s yet-to-be-defined measures highlight two important features of leveraging dependencies in a context of complex economic interdependence. First, from the moment an economy declares its willingness to weaponize its advantage, the strength of its position begins to erode as others seek to reduce their vulnerabilities over time. Second, mutual vulnerability is a central feature of today’s global, networked economy. Indeed, a broad weaponization of gallium and germanium won’t only harm those it sets out to target and press them to develop alternative supplies, but would significantly, and perhaps even disproportionately, undermine China’s own industrial interests as well.