Understanding China’s Gallium Sanctions

On July 3, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that it would impose restrictions on the export of gallium and germanium for reasons of national security. The move, widely seen as a response to U.S. restrictions on technology sales and transfers to China, targets key elements within the Department of Defense’s (DOD) supply chain. The announcement has sparked renewed concern in the United States about its dependence on critical mineral imports from China. However, current and future production capacities in Japan, Germany, and Australia undermine the power of this most recent Chinese economic swipe at the United States.

Q1: What is gallium and why does gallium nitride matter?

A1: Gallium is a “soft, silvery metallic element” that has a similar structure to silicon and is used in advanced microelectronics. Gallium compounds have a wide range of applications, ranging from semiconductors to LEDs. Primary gallium production is a by-product of bauxite or zinc processing and generally relies on sodium aluminate or zinc sulfate solution to extract gallium. Recycling plants can recover gallium from production scrap of other gallium-based devices. Refineries use fractional crystallization and zone refining to increase the purity of gallium created by primary production or recycling. Globally, gallium production is geographically constrained, and the United States is wholly dependent on foreign sources—including China.

Gallium compounds are key inputs to some advanced U.S. defense systems and, by extension, the DOD supply chain. Gallium nitride (GaN) is used in the U.S. Navy’s AN/SPY-6 radar and the U.S. Marine Corps’ AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR radar. Additionally, GaN is increasingly used in advanced microelectronics. These two industrial applications mean that gallium is essential to the global supply chain for both military and civilian applications.

Q2: How large is China’s role in the global market, and how could that impact the effectiveness of these restrictions?

A2: China is a major producer of primary and refined gallium. China’s primary gallium capacity largely is a by-product of the country’s aluminum industry. In 2021, China accounted for 29 percent of global exports of gallium and consumed a significant portion of its manufacturing capacity domestically. While China is the global leader in gallium production, it is not the only player in the global supply chain. Gallium is a commodity, and a handful of other nations make up an important share of global production. China’s lack of a chokehold on the global supply chain may undercut the effectiveness of its sanctions to such a degree that they may be mostly symbolic—by intent or otherwise.

Q3: Outside of China, which nations play a role in the global gallium supply chain?

A3: Japan is a major player in worldwide gallium production, with three methods of production. First, Japanese companies can import lower purity gallium and refine it. Many of these companies currently rely on China for primary gallium imports as a low-cost input. However, refining imported gallium will still be possible with Chinese export controls, as China only has a 22 percent share of Japan’s imports of gallium and other critical minerals. Second, Japan produces gallium by recycling globally available scrap, which will be slowed but not halted by Chinese export controls. Lastly, Japan also has its own primary gallium production, carried out by the DOWA Metals and Mining Company using by-products of smelting zinc imported from Mexico, which is outside of Chinese control. These three sources of gallium, some totally insulated from China, make Japanese production relatively resilient to supply chain pressures from China.

Several U.S. allies have the capacity to restart primary production of gallium. Germany’s Ingal Stade GmbH produced primary gallium in Germany until it ceased operations in 2016. In 2021, the company announced plans to restart gallium production in response to increased global prices. Though there is currently no gallium production in Australia, the country was also previously a major producer and has numerous sources of zinc and bauxite, which are key to gallium production. A mothballed facility located near Alcoa’s Pinjarra alumina refining plant could provide Australia with a surge capacity.

Chinese export controls limiting low-cost mineral availability and growing global demand will lead to higher gallium prices in the coming years. These market conditions could spur the same reopening process in Australia that is underway in Germany, leading to greater production of gallium by reliable U.S. allies.

Q4: How will these controls impact U.S. defense manufacturing?

A4: China may have targeted gallium because of its role in the DOD supply chain. While targeting the DOD supply chain is difficult at the commodity level since most commodities are dual use, gallium plays a unique role in some modern military systems. Gallium has long been identified as an important component in high-energy radars, given its ability to handle high voltages at high temperatures. Leading-edge U.S. military radars, including the AN/SPY-6 and AN/TPS 80, rely on gallium to support their antennas and other essential components. This makes gallium essential to the DOD, because it is needed in critical systems and cannot be easily substituted. Gallium is also used commercially in technologies ranging from electric cars to phone chargers. Because gallium is dual use, and there is a network of suppliers that are not reliant on China, the short- and long-term threat to the DOD and the defense industrial base is likely minimal. Costs may rise as demand grows relative to supply, but China will not be able to completely cut off access.

Q5: How do these export restrictions fit within the broader context of Chinese economic and supply chain coercion?

A5: China likely enacted these export controls in response to the United States, the Netherlands, and Japan restricting China’s access to some of the world’s most complex semiconductor manufacturing equipment. This would follow a long-running Chinese tactic of attempting supply chain coercion in response to foreign pressure. In 2010, China blocked rare earth exports to Japan; in 2019, China informally sanctioned South Korea for deploying the terminal high-altitude area defense system (THAAD); and in 2021, China stopped importing lasers from Lithuania in response to its recognition of Taiwan. Threatening supply chains is clearly part of China’s coercive playbook. What makes the restriction of gallium interesting, however, is that other global sources clearly exist. Chinese leaders may have been intending to send a deliberately weak signal to both save face and prevent further escalation.

Regardless of China’s intent, the United States still lacks the policy tools to meaningfully respond to Chinese economic and supply chain statecraft. Some have suggested that deterrence by denial may be the best approach while others have advocated for coordinated export controls between partners and allies. Regardless of the approach, the United States and its allies would clearly benefit from tools to economically respond to China. This will certainly not be the last time that China deliberately seeks to threaten global supply chains, and the United States and its allies and partners should be prepared to respond in kind.

Alexander Holderness is a research assistant with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Velazquez is a temporary research assistant with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS. Henry H. Carroll is an intern with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS. Cynthia Cook is director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and senior fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS.

Alexander Holderness

Alexander Holderness

Former Associate Fellow, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group

Nicholas Velazquez

Temporary Research Assistant, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group
Cynthia Cook
Director, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and Senior Fellow, International Security Program