Ask the average western world resident what they know about the rare earth elements and you’ll likely get either a blank stare or painfully vague recollections from high school chemistry.

Yet, the 17 elements that are classified as rare earths are critical to manufacturing a wide variety of high-tech products, everything from missiles and computer hard drives to iPods and cell phones.

Which is why China’s call this week for greater use of rare earths for its own domestic manufacturing – a de facto admission that Beijing seeks to limit exports of the vital resource – is bad news for technology-dependent nations such as those in North America and the European Union.

China is the world’s largest producer of rare earths, producing more than 97 percent of the world’s supply, according to CNN.

Its move to dictate production and exports have raised a global outcry, according to Agence France-Presse.

Beijing’s goal is to boost the use of rare earths in its own high-end manufacturing, said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The nation will “give full play to China’s dominant position of rare earths resources to expand the scale of the rare earths new materials industry,” it said in a development plan for 2011-2015 posted on its website late Wednesday.

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