For several years since the global push to develop mass-scale Electric Vehicles, the element Lithium has come intofocus as a strategic metal. Demand is enormous in China, in the EU and in the USA at present, and securing control over lithium supplies is already developing its own geopolitics not unlike that for the control of oil.
China Moves to Secure Sources
For China, which has set major targets to become the world’s largest producer of EVs, developing lithium battery materials is a priority for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period. Though China has its own lithium reserves, recovery is limited, and China has gone to secure lithium mining rights abroad.
In Australia Chinese companyTalison Lithium, controlled by Tianqi, mines and owns the world’s largest and highest grade spodumene reserves in Greenbushes, Western Australia near Perth.
Talison Lithium Inc. is the world’s largest primary lithium producer. Their Greenbushes site in Australia produces today some 75% of China’s lithium demands and about forty percent of world demand. This as well as other vital Australian raw materials, has made relations with Australia, traditionally a firm US ally, of strategic importance to Beijing. As well, China has become the largest trade partner for Australia.
However China’s growing economic influence in the Pacific around Australia led Prime Minister Scott Morrison to send a warning message to China not to challenge Australia’s strategic backyard region. In late 2017 Australia, with growing concern over expanding Chinese influence in the region, resumed informal cooperation in what is sometimes called the Quad,with USA, India and Japan, reviving an earlier attempt to check Chinese influence in the South Pacific. Australia has also recently stepped up lending to strategic Pacific island nations to counter China’s lending. All this clearly makes it imperative for China to go global to other sites to secure its lithium in order to become the key player in the emerging EV economy over the coming decade.
As development of electric vehicles became priority in Chinese economic planning, the search for secure lithium turned to Chile,another major source of the lithium. There,China’s Tianqiis amassing a major share of Chile’s SociedadQuimica Y Minera (SQM), one of the world’s largest lithium producers.