Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa
(Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)


African Alliance: While Biden Pushes Electric Vehicles, China Leads The Race For Rare Earth Metals

Africa Could Hold The Key To Biden's EV Push, But China Already Beat Him To The Punch

During his inauguration speech on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden declared that “the battle to save our planet by getting the climate under control” was one of the foremost issues he planned to address while in the White House.

One of the most important aspects of that climate agenda includes a move toward electric vehicles (EVs) as replacements for the gasoline-powered cars driven by tens of millions of Americans. Biden and other officials in his administration have pushed hard on the electric vehicle issue and included provisions to incentivize EVs in major pieces of legislation.

As part of the Inflation Reduction Act enacted in August 2022, Americans can receive a tax credit of up to $7,500 if they purchase an electric vehicle. The White House touted in February that the president’s infrastructure law alone had invested over $20 billion into EV-related infrastructure, including charging stations and battery components. Meanwhile, the private sector, under the administration’s strong encouragement, had invested over $36 billion into electric vehicle manufacturing and $48 billion into domestic battery production by the fall of 2022.

In short, the level of investment into electric vehicles during Biden’s tenure has been massive, especially in the area of batteries. 2022’s historic level of investment into EV production, more than triple the level of investment from 2021, is part of the administration’s strategy to decrease the country’s dependence on China, which currently controls 75% of battery manufacturing capacity.

To achieve even a modicum of industrial independence in the electric vehicle market, the U.S. is going to have to ramp up its acquisition of highly valuable, and relatively rare, minerals used in the battery production process. Some of these minerals, including lithium, are already mined by the United States and friendly countries like Australia. But the U.S. is going to need more and more of these minerals if it wants to completely transition toward electric vehicles. Africa is emerging as the next major hub for the extraction of these minerals and may provide the supply the U.S. needs in the coming decades, but it seems as if the Chinese Communist Party has beaten Biden to the punch.

Lithium is a critical component in lithium-ion batteries, which are used to power cell phones, computers, and, yes, electric vehicles. Australia currently dominates in lithium mining, digging up over half the world’s supply in 2022. But far more lithium will be needed to meet the demand from the U.S. and other countries attempting to go green.

China, meanwhile, has a near-monopoly on taking the mined lithium and using it to make the batteries that go in all those devices.

As of 2022, African nations barely produced any of the world’s supply of lithium, but they are sitting on a potential lithium bonanza, according to experts. While Australia mined 55,000 metric tons of lithium in 2021, Zimbabwe, a landlocked nation in southern Africa, is projected to extract over 100,000 tons of lithium by 2031, according to the Financial Times. Mali, in West Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in Central Africa, are also expected to become major producers of lithium while Namibia, Ghana, and Ethiopia will become moderate producers.

The problem for the U.S. stems from the fact that China has been investing in these countries for years, and China owns or partially owns many of the companies that are poised to exploit the coming lithium boom. The top lithium-producing companies in both Mali and the DRC are partially owned by China, while 3 out of the 4 major lithium mining companies in Zimbabwe are entirely owned by the communist nation.

Just one lithium mine in Zimbabwe, owned by a Chinese company, is estimated to hold up to 11 million metric tons of the mineral, according to CNBC. Zimbabwe banned the export of raw lithium in December 2022 to encourage domestic processing, but the three Chinese-owned companies, which have invested $678 million into lithium projects in the country and have announced plans for development projects that reach into the billions, are exempt from the regulation. Indeed, Zimbabwe has been a major beneficiary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a foreign investment and infrastructure policy that critics have argued is a debt trap for poorer nations. As of 2023, China has invested tens of billions in African nations, including Zimbabwe, the DRC, Mali, and Ghana — all places where mining is projected to spike in the coming years.

Additionally, the DRC has a stranglehold on the mining of cobalt, another crucial mineral in the production of EV batteries, producing an estimated 70% of the world’s supply. Chinese companies also have significant control over those mines in the DRC and ones in Zambia. In 2020, China held complete or partial ownership in 15 of the 19 operating cobalt mines in the DRC, The Economist reported.

China far outpaces the U.S. in trade with Africa. In 2021, China’s total trade with the continent stood at $254 billion, while the United States’ trade lagged behind at only $64 billion, according to CNBC.

The Biden administration has made moves to try to catch up to China — Biden has announced billions in new investments on the continent and created the Minerals Security Partnership in 2022. During a summit with African leaders in December, Biden also reached an agreement with the leaders of the DRC and Zambia for further investment in the electric vehicle supply chain, according to Voice of America. Notably, Zimbabwe’s president did not attend the summit.

“America has not been consistent in the way it engages with Africa,” said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to CNBC. “If you leave and come back 10 years later, that void you left will be filled by somebody else, so it’s important that we be consistent.”

However, “The Chinese have played for keeps,” according to Dizolele.

As multiple European countries and several U.S. states, namely New York and California, have announced plans to end the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, the time crunch to find and develop reliable deposits of lithium and other minerals critical to EV production has created a tight deadline for Western nations. If they aren’t able to outcompete China for those resources, they might be stuck paying Beijing through the nose for them.

The United States’ apathy, as well as the administration’s fixation on social issues, has allowed the Chinese Communist Party to gobble up some of Africa’s most important resources. Though the U.S. is starting to take the issue seriously and even make inroads with some countries, it might be too little too late to prevent Chinese domination of the electric vehicle supply chain.

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