The Key to Victory Against Russian and Chinese Autocracy Is Aluminum | Opinion

Russia's unjust war against Ukraine recently marked its one-year anniversary. The brutality of the onslaught, and the atrocities committed by Moscow over the last 12 months, are a grim reminder of the world in which we now live. Halfway around the globe, Russia's strategic partner, China, routinely bullies its neighbors and threatens democratic Taiwan. Meanwhile, Beijing continues to steal intellectual property, break international rules to dominate key economic sectors, and conduct unfettered espionage—marked recently by the brazen flyover of the U.S. by a spy balloon.

We may not be in a cold war with Moscow and Beijing, but relations are cooling. Washington and its allies are girding themselves for the tough times ahead, recognizing that Russia and China aim to upset the global order to benefit their own dark aims. There is much we must do to protect U.S. economic and national security, and that begins with safeguarding our access to key resources.

COVID showed us the importance of having reliable providers of medical supplies. Global supply chain disruptions revealed the critical nature of semiconductors. And last year's sanctions on Russia reminded us to remain energy independent. Yet in all these cases, the U.S. response wasn't timely enough to avoid harm to our people, economy, or security.

So how can we do better?

Employees working on aluminum products at a factory in Huaibei, in China's eastern Anhui province. STR/AFP via Getty Images

To begin, we cannot rely on adversaries for critical resources, let alone give them this leverage to use against us. One area that stands out is our dependence on Russia and China for strategic minerals. Lithium, cobalt, and a variety of rare earth elements are in this category. So are metals such as titanium and aluminum. Beijing and Moscow are two of the world's top three producers of both metals, with China distancing everyone else and producing ten times more aluminum than Russia and 40 times more than the U.S.

While most Americans are familiar with aluminum utensils and other consumer goods, primary aluminum is essential to several critical industries. Because it is lightweight, corrosion resistant, and extremely versatile, it is used extensively in shipbuilding, energy transmission, spacecraft, and airplanes. Its importance to our economic and national security, prosperity, and independence is obvious.

The United States used to be the largest producer of primary aluminum; today, it ranks ninth. Russia is tied for third. China now owns over half the global market. Additionally, the U.S. went from having 23 operational aluminum smelters in 1993 to just five now. Worse, only one of the remaining facilities makes the high-purity aluminum needed for fighter jets, lightweight armor plating, and military electronics. And certain missile and munition systems depend on the high-performance alloys derived from this special aluminum.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Homeland Security has designated "critical manufacturing"—which includes domestic production of primary metals such as aluminum—as one of America's 16 critical sectors.

This is an area China is working to dominate, with Russia close behind, and make no mistake about it: Beijing and Russia will cut us off when the need arises. While multiple sectors in Russia have been targeted with sanctions as a result of Moscow's illegal and brutal invasion, aluminum and other key metals were not included.

Former President Trump imposed stiff tariffs on these items, a move that was long overdue yet is still not sufficient. Profits from aluminum production continue to fuel Moscow's war machine.

Similar business operations in China are funding the CCP's genocide against the Uyghurs, supporting Russia's war, and underwriting Beijing's strategic plan to supplant Western leadership. Noted economists, meanwhile, have reported that China's subsidies and other market-distorting practices have hurt global competition when it comes to aluminum and other goods. It has been a price paid heavily by American workers and companies for years.

To stay ahead of our adversaries, the U.S. and its allies must disentangle themselves from Russia and China when it comes to strategic resources like rare earth elements and primary aluminum, and find a way to succeed independent of the whims of two autocratic nations.

Doing so will put a brake on both countries' malevolent plans and allow us to safeguard our national and economic security. It will give us the opportunity to strengthen domestic production and supply chains so that we are not reliant on regimes that don't share our values or interests. And it will send the right messages to Beijing and Moscow that we are prepared to make the tough choices necessary to ensure a Western victory in this long contest now underway between the world's autocracies and democracies.

This is not something we necessarily want, but it is definitely something we must do.

Dr. Mark T. Esper was the 27th Secretary of Defense and is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir "A Sacred Oath."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.