Japan aims for half of rare earth supplies from outside China

TOKYO, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Japan is to diversify its sources of rare earths away from China and expects to get half its supplies of the elements from countries other than China from the middle of next year, Trade Minister Yukio Edano said on Monday.

Japan gets about 90 percent of its imports of rare earth elements, which are used in technologies such as smartphones and hybrid cars, from China. But Japan is accelerating the search for alternative suppliers to reduce its dependence and ensure stable supplies.

The push to diversify supplies comes during a period of tension between the neighbours over the disputed ownership of a string of small islands in the East China Sea. China held back shipments of rare earths to Japan in 2010 after a dispute.

“We want to further diversify sources of suppliers, secure our interests and support domestic technological development to cut the amount used and promote recycling,” Edano told parliament.

Japan’s annual domestic demand for rare earths has been between 20,000 tonnes and 30,000 tonnes over the past several years, the government says.

Edano said Japan was expected to import 4,100 tonnes of rare earth from India next year. Japan also plans to import 400 tonnes from Kazakhstan and 9,000 tonnes from Australia in 2013, a Trade Ministry official said.

China, the world’s biggest producer of rare earth metals, accounting for more than 90 percent of supplies, is likely to become turn an importer of them by as early as 2014 as its high-tech industries increase their demand.

China restricted exports of rare earths about two years ago and the World Trade Organisation is looking into complaints from Europe, Japan and the United States over its curbs. (Editing by Robert Birsel)