The war for raw materials amounts to a reshuffling of the power relations among Western nations, on one hand, and the emerging and/or developing nations, on the other. The rise of China, BRICS, and the growing strength of the sovereign wealth funds of Arab nations, which are oil exporters, provides the evidence. Resources are powerful weapons in economic warfare, and everything suggests that the conflict will only intensify. The International Energy Agency estimates that world demand for energy will increase by 50% from now until 2030,especially owing to the growth of India and China. Ensuring ready procurement of materials, therefore, assumes crucial importance for nations. In 2007, the Committee on Critical Mineral Impacts of the U.S. Economy published a report with a list of eleven minerals that were particularly important for the leading industrial sectors of the U.S. Economy, due to their rarity and value. The list includes rhodium, used primarily in the manufacture of catalytic converters, which is particularly abundant in Russia but also in South Africa.
As guarantor of its national economy, every nation has, in fact, drawn up a list of the resources that it considers necessary and on which a significant number of current geo-economic conflicts depends.
As Liberalist logic goes, trade should produce closer and closer integration among the economic operators in various nations, which are linked less and less to specific reference territories, while reducing the risks of conflict and the role played by the nation at the same time.
This highly ideological vision is losing credibility. Territories have resisted and, along with them, the notion of control. The financial crisis that began in 2008 seriously undermined their citizens’ trust in the market’s capacity for self-regulation. The various factors that contribute to a nation’s power include its possession and exploitation of the riches of its subsoil, sea bottoms, and arable land. In a world expected to reach a population of 9 billion by 2050,the logic of self-sufficiency or lesser dependence now drives nations to compete in guaranteeing their supply of raw materials more than ever before. Competition for the control of raw materials – which has never stopped structuring international relations – has demonstrated a particularly significant intensification in recent years. The surge in agricultural raw material prices triggered a wave of arable land-grabbing by foreign investors in 2008, predominant among which, the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and Arab Emirates. Most of their purchases were made in the continents of Africa and Latin America, where – by no coincidence – 90% of the world’s as-yet unutilized arable land is located. Appetites like these generate tension and rivalry. Hydrocarbons, of course, remain the center of strategic interests. After acquiring the possibility to intensely exploit its reserves of shale gas, the United States has become self-sufficient. As a result, its former supplier, Saudi Arabia, has witnessed a weakening of its bonds with the U.S., its protector against Iran. Its febrile behavior during the crises in Iraq and Syria is due in part to this evolution of international relations. The case of Greenland – whose oil reserves are now estimated as being half of those of Saudi Arabia –is also exemplary. Combined with the results of the referendum regarding autonomy (75% in favor), this new circumstance will now give greater force to the movement for independence as the larger powers are already jockeying for the best bargaining positions.
One sector that will apparently be particularly significant for international tensions in the future is that of mineral resources: more and more often nations with large mineral deposits are opting for state control. Well-known documented examples are offered by China, Russia, and Bolivia, and the list might soon include Madagascar, which, after being long subjected to crushing passive exploitation by foreign mining companies, announced in 2014 the creation of a public mining company to exploit its resources at a national level.
One vital mineral resource that is indispensable to aeronautics, given that it represents between 15 and 20% of the metal used in the construction of a modern airplane, is titanium. It is no wonder that the Boeing Company and the United Technologies Corporation have decided to stockpile it.
The world’s leading titanium supplier is the Russian VSMPO group. Will these two American companies, whose decision was revealed last August, suffer retaliation in the context of the crisis in Ukraine? It must be recalled that U.S. law prohibits companies that work for its Defense Department from purchasing titanium abroad. However, the two groups produce for both the civil and the military sector.
In addition to Ukraine, another area of international tension created by resource grabbing is the China Seas, where the level of interdependence between the leading powers (South Korea, Japan, People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan) is certainly growing, and in the opinion of Paul Tourret, Director of the Higher Institute of Maritime Economics, such a mesh of interests should have reduced the risk of conflict even if – as the expert himself seems to imply – the sharing of the same geo-economic interests is of little use in guaranteeing stability in the region.
The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands that began in 2010 and flared up again in 2012 and 2013 even led Beijing to lower its exports of rare metals to Japan. This group of 17metals, whose leading producer is unquestionably China, is indispensible to the production of products with high-technological content, one of the mainstays of the Japanese economy. Acknowledging that this reduction in exports had effectively weakened its economy, Japan wasted no time in reacting: on March 13, 2012, supported by the U.S. and the EU, Japan denounced China to the WTO, which in fact reprimanded the conduct of the Chinese government. This did not prompt Beijing to change its tune, however. In addition to putting its faith in procedures at this level, Japan recently set up the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) and funds it with 15 billion euros annually. The entity operates on three levels: supporting Japanese mining companies abroad (particularly in their purchases or entry into foreign company shareholding structures), providing a diplomatic channel in the stipulation of long-term contracts between nations, and supporting national research in the energy and mining sector. In 2012, Japan’s Minister of Industry announced that new trading partners like Kazakhstan and Australia would help reduce its dependence on Chinese rare metals. The private sector supports the national effort: through its branches, auto manufacturer Toyota has become one of the prime investors in mining sectors in Canada and Australia as another way of weaning Japan from Chinese supplies. Nations take different approaches to the geo-economic problems posed by the procurement of metals and minerals. The first is to get back into the markets, which, as reported by certain experts, are impenetrable, fragmented, and do not offer sufficient information.
Some industrial societies resort to the expedient of financial insurance that guarantees the purchase of substances at a fixed price for a certain amount of time. However, this sometimes turns out to be a blunt instrument, however, given that nations often and willingly ignore the guarantees granted in defense of their own best interests. The second option nations take is when they become aware of the geopolitical necessities for territorial control and implement a long-term purchasing diversification strategy. Not all nations vaunt the same strategic prowess as Japan, however; Europe, in particular, demonstrates a deficit of awareness in this field.
The rising demand for metals and/or minerals stems from the arrival of a new tier of industrialized nations that includes China, India, and Brazil, which all have benefitted from the delocalization of certain European heavy industries and manufacturing companies.
In the end, future tensions regarding the availability of certain materials entail the question of national security in procuring the resources indispensible to strategic industry chains (nuclear, defense, aeronautics, electronics, the automobile sector, etc.). Nature has permitted the creation of monopolies over certain resources: China supplies 93% of the world’s magnesium and 90% of its antimony. Brazil meets 90% of the international demand for niobium, while the U.S. provides 88% of its beryllium. In order to hedge the risk of economic dependence on the holders of these raw materials, other world powers have already laid out specific strategies to ensure themselves resources deemed strategic by establishing closer diplomatic relations with the nations that have what they need. The United States, Russia, and China have implemented policies for stockpile management and flow control while taking steps to secure production areas, especially through the purchase of mineral deposits and companies operating there. The volume of investments for the mining of rare substances in Greece has grown since 2014. At the start of the same year, the NBC news network revealed that the government’s scientific agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, had conducted an aerial study of the soil in Afghanistan in 2006 that permitted the mapping of the mineral resources that the nation possesses in abundance. The American researchers estimated quantities of 2.2 billion tons of ferrous material, 1.4 million tons of rare materials (such as lanthanum, neodymium, and cerium), also aluminum, gold, zinc, mercury, and lithium. The crisis in the Ukraine has allegedly driven Russia to seriously consider the idea of establishing a rare materials cartel with China, with Russia having the largest holdings after China. Unlike most others, however, Russia has deposits of all 17such materials. Therefore, Russia would have every reason to exploit these resources, also bearing in mind that Chinese production in this sector is instead currently tailing off, obliging Beijing to import them. Russia’s idea of closer links to China is also fed by its desire for retaliation against the United States and the European Union.
Owing to their use in industrial processes, the so-called platinoids or platinum group metals (PGM) are the object of much contention among the world’s industrial powers owing to their use in industrial processes. Utilized not only in traditional petrochemical, arms, aeronautic, medical, and agrifood sectors and costume jewelry, they are also crucial to the telecommunications and information technology industries, especially in the production of cell phones and computers. Palladium, for example, is used in nearly every type of electronic device, primarily as a part of high-performance capacitors or microchips. Ruthenium and platinum instead play important roles in increasing data storage capacity on hard disks but also in producing liquid crystal displays. Platinum is also the key component of various types of fuel cell. Associated with rhodium (diesel vehicles), it plays a key role in the production of the catalytic converters that reduce exhaust gas toxicity.
In addition to their growing importance in a variety of industrial processes, these materials are rare and concentrated in only a few specific geographical areas in which a sort of semi-monopoly is held, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. Southern Africa’s platinum-rich areas have become authentic theaters of national and international battle for the control of these materials that often degenerate into armed struggle. The fact is that no alternatives to their use have yet been found.
Competition between Anglo˗American, the world’s leading producer of PGM, and Asian, primarily Chinese competitors, in Zimbabwe’s Grand Dyke mines, is just one episode in an economic war of much wider scope. This battle is part of the long-term duel between Western nations and China for the control of Africa’s strategic resources that began with the fall of Mobutu in the Congo. After gaining control of a considerable part of the Central African Copperbelt that contains over half of the world’s reserves and mines for cobalt, an indispensable element in the production of electric batteries, China is making a similar attempt to corner the world’s supply of platinum, an essential metal for oil refineries that is mined above all in Angola.
Zimbabwe’s PGM are essential for China, which possesses only 1.1%of the world’s reserves, and play a dual role in ensuring its economic security by enabling it to set up its own complete petrochemical production chain, in this way gaining independence from Anglo˗American suppliers and by allowing Beijing to produce the catalytic converters it needs to reduce air pollution, a campaign that has turned into a national priority now that China has become the largest motor vehicle market in the world. It therefore comes as no surprise that PGM refining constituted the pivotal role of the agreement signed between China, Angola, and Zimbabwe in 2009.
This agreement poses a threat to Anglo˗American, which had until then had held a monopoly over Zimbabwe’s PGM mining. The British company continues to control the deposits in Southern Africa, which are more abundant than those of Zimbabwe, but those of the latter are distinguished in a way that makes them almost unique in their rare combination of both platinum and palladium, the two most highly desired PGM in the world.
This loss of part of the Zimbabwe reserves might spell the future end of the worldwide control of the PGM market by the Anglo˗American company, which has been the leading economic operator in Southern Africa for around two centuries.
Political instability and insecurity reign in the part of Africa that runs from Merensky Rift to Grand Dyke, where local political leaders wage wars in their attempts to gain control of the income derived from platinoid sales, basing their right to do so on their past as “freedom fighters”. In Zimbabwe, this operation is conducted by the former hero of the nation’s independence, Robert Mugabe, who adopts nationalistic, anti-imperialist rhetoric to accuse foreign companies of implementing neo-colonialism policies with support from Great Britain. He goes on to claim that the Anglo-American company has stoked political opposition against him, abetted by both the United States and the European Union. The leader of the opposition movement is Morgan Tsvangirai, formerly a company employee.
Robert Mugabe’s use of nationalist rhetoric to instrumentalize the question of international monopoly over the nation’s economy had served to both masquerade his less than exalting results in running the country and to sidestep demands for more political freedom. The fact that Mugabe’s nationalism amounted to mere rhetoric is clear from his scarcely coherent political conduct: following a hike in mineral product prices, in 2007 he proposed an Empowerment and Indigenization Bill for the economy in general and the mining sector in particular, and had it passed. Just one year later, Mugabe sold the mineral rights to an American hedge fund in exchange for a loan of around one hundred million dollars, which he then used to finance his election campaign. He proceeded in the same way in privatizing a mineral deposit that had become public property after he had previously expropriated it from Anglo˗American.
In short, Mugabe uses the nation’s mineral resources as if they were an automatic teller machine for the funding of his own political career. Also in South Africa, the ruling class that had come to power on the merits of its struggle against the previous apartheid regime has since displayed remarkable nonchalance in channeling the nation’s mineral wealth to its own advantage by stipulating agreements with foreign multinationals.
The massacre by police of miners in Marikana striking for higher wages in 2012 demonstrates the degree to which the miracle of South Africa is only a mirage for a large part of the nation’s black population.