BEDFORD — Blue Ridge Optics, which manufactures precision laser optics, crystals and thin film coatings, is an unusual business caught in the middle of the trade war with China.
The Bedford company uses certain rare earth materials used in manufacturing high-end optics, and China is a dominant global supplier of rare earths.
Walter Siehien founded Blue Ridge Optics in 2005, and now his son Justin Siehien is the general manager. The business employs 42 people. It’s one of numerous businesses in Virginia concerned about the trade war, which could put serious strain on them unless a deal is negotiated soon.
Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson, visited Blue Ridge Optics on Friday to learn about the business and how it has been affected by the tariffs. The Siehiens both back the tariffs against China.
“We’re all for tariffs against China right now,” Justin Siehien said. “It’s an unfair market right now that they can sell optics at one-tenth of the cost and develop their technology. It’s only going to hurt us.”
Rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements that appear in low concentrations in the ground, and they’re used in products such as iPhones, electric car motors, computers and televisions.
Blue Ridge Optics uses one of those metals, cerium. China accounted for 81% of the world’s rare earth production, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
“They really do control the market,” Justin Siehien said.
So far, the U.S. government has exempted rare earths from tariffs on Chinese goods. But Riggleman expressed concern that China could use its position as the supplier of rare earths as leverage in the trade war if tensions increase.
“The worry is if the trade war keeps going, that there might be some arbitrary issues with getting rare earth metals from China,” Riggleman said.
The private industry has stockpiles of rare earths to plan for an increase in prices. On Friday, a machine at Blue Ridge Optics was running, infusing liquid with cerium.
Blue Ridge Optics makes components that go into other products, many of which end up being sold to China, Justin Siehien said. So Riggleman said if China cut off rare earth exports, it would suffer as well.
“I do believe China is going to come to the table,” Riggleman said. “I want you guys to succeed, and I know enough about the challenges you face, and you don’t need more on your plate.”
Riggleman said he’s hopeful a deal can be negotiated within the next month. President Donald Trump has also expressed hope that China will make a deal, but it’s unclear how long he’s willing to extend the trade war.
At a joint press conference Monday in Tokyo alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said the United States was not ready to make a trade deal with China.
“I think they probably wish they made the deal that they had on the table before they tried to renegotiate it,” Trump said. “They would like to make a deal. We’re not ready to make a deal.”
Riggleman said many small businesses across the central Virginia congressional district he represents are in support of the United States getting tough on China. But they have expressed trepidation that China may not negotiate, he said, prolonging the trade war and overburdening American businesses.
“There’s a lot of small businesses that are willing to take the short term pain for long term gain when it comes to free and fair trade practices with China,” Riggleman said. “People know it’s been an unfair, unbalanced playing field for decades.”
Beale’s Brewery in Bedford purchases metal tanks that are made in China. It’s set to open a second Beale’s Brewery location in the Tidewater. Owner and developer Dave McCormack said the business hasn’t felt the effects of the tariffs yet but expressed concern about the trade battle dragging on.
“We’re worried what the tariffs could do,” he told Riggleman.