Opinion

Scarce minerals

Minerals

The rivalry between the hegemonic powers that are already the United States and China is on the way to becoming an all-encompassing situation sooner rather than later. Certainly in the political sphere, where China aspires to dominate in Asia and the United States is challenging it in the Indo-Pacific by creating new alliances (QUAD, AUKUS) or building on existing ones (ASEAN). Taiwan and the South China Sea are the two most obvious examples of this dangerous confrontation. In terms of trade, the conflict is manifested in sanctions that penalise fraudulent practices, intellectual property piracy, tariff and regulatory barriers, etc. On the technological front, the competition for the 5G networks on which smart cities and the Internet of Things will depend, which require speed, capacity and minimum latency, is well known. In the field of Artificial Intelligence, whose dominance according to Brookings will determine which is the hegemonic power at the end of the century, China is ahead with 300 billion dollars already invested. The competition extends to many other areas, such as an Arctic Ocean that is becoming increasingly navigable and exploitable, space, where the US still dominates but China is making great progress, and cyberspace, which is becoming an increasingly popular tool for hybrid confrontation because it allows us to throw a stone and hide our hand.

Less well known is that the confrontation between China and the United States is also over the control, exploitation and processing of certain raw materials that are important for the technological and digital revolution we are experiencing. A study published in the NYT by Dionne Searcey, Michael Forsythe and Eric Lipton focuses on the struggle for coltan, a rare grey mineral found in association with copper deposits, which until now has received little attention. But coltan is needed to make the batteries that power the electric cars that are intended to displace the more polluting internal combustion engines. It is not that electric cars are not polluting because electricity is mostly produced by gas, but they are less polluting and that is important in the fight against global warming. A Tesla electric car needs five kilos of cobalt, which is a mineral also found in mobile phones. And it turns out that China is taking over almost all the cobalt mines in the world, particularly in the Congo, forcing Western electric car manufacturers to resort to recycling batteries or making them from other, less efficient materials. According to the International Energy Agency, there will be a cobalt shortage by 2030, and it is not out of the question that there will be a shortage in 2025, i.e. four years from now. This will make electric vehicles, which are already not cheap, more expensive.

China's acquisition of cobalt is not a coincidence, but the product of a geopolitical design that is part of the Made China 2025 Plan, which aims to create national industrial champions capable of competing in the world and searching for the raw materials they need. And for this it has all the money it needs because it does not come from corporate funds but from state funds. Chinese companies have deep pockets and it is difficult to compete with them. The Chinese company Molybdenum has bought up two of Congo's largest mines (Kisanfuy Tenke and Fungurume) in the last five years in this way, where it is estimated that millions of tonnes of cobalt are waiting to be extracted. Today China owns 15 of Congo's 19 cobalt mines and in return has also offered Kinshasa everything from stadiums to hospitals and roads... which also make the country indebted and more dependent on China. Beijing's objective is not only to control coltan but also the world's electric battery business in the very short term.

Today China processes 65% of cobalt, 40% of copper, 85% of rare earths, 35% of nickel and 55% of lithium. It can be seen that both Americans and Europeans have fallen asleep and the Chinese have "woken us up" in this race for power because Xi Jinping knows that if China fell under Western domination in the 19th century it is because it lost the battle of technology and he is not willing to allow that to happen again.

Jorge Dezcallar, Ambassador of Spain