All over the world, a battle is being waged for critical raw materials such as earth metals. These raw materials are not only important for the energy transition, but also for defence. That is why, according to director Ron Nulkes of the Dutch Industry for Defense and Security, it is important that the Dutch dependence on countries such as China is reduced: ‘We are now vulnerable.’
Nulkes thinks that the state of the Dutch defense is reasonably good at the moment. Deputy director Michel Rademakers of the The Hague Center for Strategic Studies agrees. ‘The Netherlands, for example, has a good high-tech industry. But Rademakers also has a side note: ‘There aren’t many manufacturers here who make original equipment, we have to go to America for that. That makes us vulnerable because if they need that equipment themselves, they might one day use it against us.’
Listen to the whole podcast | The crucial role of critical raw materials for defence
Those critical raw materials comprise quite a broad category. According to Rademakers, this concerns about thirty metals – including lithium, cobalt, gold and rare earths – that are needed for both the climate transition and defense. ‘An F-35 fighter plane already contains 400 kilos of critical material from China’, explains Rademakers.
The dependence on materials from countries such as China, Japan, Congo and Northern Europe makes the Netherlands vulnerable. Nulkes therefore foresees a ‘gigantic problem that will not be solved for the next ten years.’ Making cleaner technologies yourself is proving difficult and a reaction time is needed before scaling up can take place, says the director of the Dutch Industry for Defense and Security. “Until we are able to do that, we must remain friends with China, if they act in the same way as Russia, then that is very bad.”
But there are also other ways to meet the need for critical raw materials, Rademakers believes. For example, we can focus on the reuse of materials: ‘With aluminum this is already done for 90 percent and for steel for three quarters. You could use that across the board’, says the deputy director of the HCSS. ‘In addition, use material that has already been discarded.’
‘Not in my backyard’
In addition, Nulkes thinks that Europe should be able to bring part of the value chain back to its own territory. ‘But then we have to get rid of the dogma ‘not in my backyard’. This means that efforts should also be made, for example, on mining and refining,’ argues Nulkes. Rademakers also sees that having access to strategic raw materials is a precondition for being strategically autonomous.
According to Rademakers, there are a number of solutions for becoming more strategically independent: ‘In the short term, one could think of drawing up trade agreements and concluding bilateral deals. This gives you faster access to raw materials.’ Another solution is to set up refining capacities in other parts of the world, thinks Rademakers. ‘In this way you reduce your dependence on the refining capacity of China, for example, and you bring a piece of production capacity to you,’ says Rademakers.
Both Rademakers and Nulkes agree that it is important to become less dependent on other countries for critical raw materials. ‘It is important to think about this at a European level. Otherwise you may have to choose at some point whether the raw materials will be used by the defense or in hospitals,’ Rademakers fears. ‘You really need the government to make that assessment.’