US seeks to curb Chinese dominance in critical minerals
Harry Dempsey and Henry Sanderson
The US is stepping up efforts to curb China’s dominance over supplies of raw materials for clean technologies, launching an initiative to promote development of lithium, cobalt and other minerals in resource rich countries.
Washington has joined Australia, Botswana and Peru in promoting responsible mining of 15 materials that are set to be in high demand as uptake of green technologies such as electric vehicles, battery storage and wind turbines accelerates.
“We want to ensure that these important mineral commodities remain free from international coercion and control,” said US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in a veiled reference to China.
The launch of the programme comes at a time of mounting concerns over the availability of minerals critical to new energy technologies, and about China’s dominant role in the supply chains for those raw materials.
Frank Fannon, the US assistant secretary of energy resources, pointed to the “incredible implications for minerals” of growing consumer demand for clean energy and predicted that calls for minerals to be sustainably sourced would grow.
“As clean and green as these technologies are at the end state, it comes from big shovels going into the ground,” said Mr Fannon. “There will be a day when there is a focus on where and how clean energies are sourced.”
Chinese companies have been moving to secure supplies of materials critical to green technology, buying up stakes in mining projects in countries from Australia to South America and Greenland.
The dominance of China in the supply chain for battery metals has triggered acute concerns in Washington and Brussels. In a separate move, the US signed an agreement last week with Australia to create a joint plan to reduce reliance on Chinese rare earths, a subset of specialised minerals.
Chile, another resource-rich country, pulled out of the launch event for the Energy Resource Governance Initiative, which took place at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, owing to scheduling issues, according to Mr Fannon.
David Merriman, an analyst at consultancy Roskill, said Chile could have concerns about China, as well as worries about undermining the promotion of its image as a location for downstream processing of lithium and other resources.
“Most of its customers are in the Chinese market,” he said. “Why rock the boat when the supply chain works?”
The US state department said it would advise developing countries on how to manage their minerals and offer financing for responsible projects. Argentina, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, the Philippines and Zambia are among those taking part.
The new US Development Finance Corporation, set to operate by the end of the year, would play a “significant role” by letting the US government take equity positions in mining projects and encouraging private sector investment, said Mr Fannon.
Roskill’s Mr Merriman said the initiative showed the US was becoming more open about the need to support countries to compete with China in batteries and electric vehicles. “The automotive industry is continually shifting to Asia. There is now a protectionist atmosphere about keeping that expertise in their own country,” he said.