by Leo Lewis – The Times – Published: August 27, 2010
The world will belong to the countries who control the resources, such as rare earth metals, which power the 21st century.
In the magnificent banqueting room of Seoul’s presidential Blue House, Evo Morales suspended his rabid socialism last night to enjoy South Korean capitalist hospitality at its most bountiful.
In the Bolivian President’s briefcase were two documents: a wildly generous memorandum of understanding from one of Asia’s foremost powers and an honorary doctorate from one of its best universities. Not a bad day’s work for a former llama shepherd who never finished school.
For 45 years, South Korea has ignored dirt-poor Bolivia, and certainly not entertained its leader at lavish expense. Mr Morales’s nation, however, has lots of lithium – and Seoul wants Samsung, Hyundai, LG and its other industrial giants to remain in business.
Not an ounce of the stuff has yet left Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, but the great salt lake holds enough lithium, according to some projections, to give whoever gains access to it future dominion over batteries for electric cars, laptops and mobile phones.
Mr Morales has also spotted sooner than most that the world has fundamentally changed: resource geopolitics has lurched far beyond oil. The impending clashes will concern almost-unknown minerals and the world’s consumer nations are realising this with some alarm. A series of recent reports warn that industries may no longer be viable even at the national level, forcing abrupt re-evaluations.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and other technology powerhouses may struggle to retain their positions. “We are at economic war,” Jack Lifton, an authority on rare minerals, told The Times.
“The world where you could get everything for a price is history. And the West has been sound asleep on this. The level of ignorance about the upstream of mineral supply … is just out of this world.”
Even in Asia, where growth is more visibly dependent on the minerals, the sense of dismay is recent. The South Korean government declared last week that it would draw cash from the national pension and sovereign funds to secure rare metals. It was coupled with a proposal that future aid should be focused on countries with rare metals.
The courting of Mr Morales is not an isolated incident: China, Japan, Russia and France have all tried similar ruses to win his heart. This is, however, just the start. Other land grabs in the “New Great Game”, warned a recent EU report, could erupt over the molybdenum used for cardiograms, cobalt for mobile phones, palladium for desalination plants, fluorspar, which is essential to chemical production, or the magnesium oxide vital to every oil refinery, cement factory and steel mill on Earth.
The EU lists 14 raw materials as “critical”.
The US Department of Defence will next month publish a report on how much its military relies on materials that, currently, can only be obtained from China.
In May, Britain’s Department for Transport and Department for Business received a report on rare earth resources which said it was likely that China would, by 2015, ban all exports of the metals – substances that underpin the digital revolution and without which most “green” technology cannot function.
Gal Luft, a director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, pointed to China’s 95 per cent control of global production of rare earth metals, predicting that foreign policies around the world would be shaped by the need for dysprosium, cobalt and platinum in the same way that oil defined geopolitics in the 20th century.
China’s ever-tightening restrictions on rare earth exports quotas will be slashed by 72 per cent by the end of this year – reflect a pattern that may soon be seen in other commodities. “When it comes to resources, there is no free market,” Mr Luft said. “The lesson for governments that want to stay in business is that you can’t source things you want from one place.”
Jaakko Kooroshy, a policy analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told The Times that the situation had exposed spectacular complacency among Western governments. “The West has woken up late to the idea that these metals have a strategic importance. In the supposed boom of the 1990s … mining was a non-issue and everyone wanted to diversify away from something seen as dirty and old. Suddenly it matters again.”
The mineral issues do not end with technology, with attention focused also on fundamental minerals. Control of world potash supply for crop fertiliser may become increasingly tormented by trade restrictions and politicised resource control.
Academics in the US and Australia have warned that phosphorus, the other mineral behind the 1960s “green revolution” in food, may be approaching physical limits, ushering in “the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of”.
Just as this resource vulnerability has not been lost on President Lee of South Korea, Japan’s leadership is at least unified on the need for panic. Supplies of lithium, tantalum, germanium, indium and the 17 rare earth metals are fundamental to things that Japan does best – consumer electronics, hybrid vehicles and precision technology.
The dominance of China in the supply of many of these has become a source of concern. Katsuya Okada, the Japanese Foreign Minister, has spent this year in a typhoon of trips. London, Paris, Berlin and even Beijing have not featured – instead it is South Africa, Vietnam, Tanzania, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Australia that have featured.
The country is urgently talking to mineral-producing heads of state – before China and South Korea get their feet in the door.
“Until recently, the government took the attitude that this was something best left to market forces … but the world has changed dramatically and the Government cannot just sit back any more,” Mr Okada said.