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Monopoly, Minerals and Mines: The US and China’s fight over mineral control in Sub-Saharan Africa

Joe Alexander

Source: iStock/Michael Fuller

The current global geopolitical landscape indicates a shift towards a new era of great power competition, akin to a Cold War scenario, between the United States and China. This shift marks the end of the unchallenged dominance of the United States and introduces a complex global dynamic. Unlike historical empires that sought resources and territory, this competition will focus on winning African nations over to either the Western or Eastern spheres amid great power competition. Both the US and China rely on Africa for essential resources vital to their economic prosperity and security. The competition for influence in Africa between the United States and China is intensifying, with both countries pursuing strategic interests across the continent.


The importance of critical minerals


Modern societies, economies, and weapons rely on critical minerals. Africa is home to 30% of the world's known critical minerals. However, the regions rich in these minerals are also plagued by disease, conflict and instability. Moreover, infrastructure is scarce, making the transportation of these resources difficult once obtained. It is within these circumstances that the US and China seek to tap into the African mineral market. 


The focal point of the US-China rivalry revolves around technology, spanning civilian and military applications. While China currently dominates rare earth metals globally, it relies on Africa for various resources. For instance, lithium, crucial for rechargeable batteries and solar panels, is abundant in Africa, with over 40% of known global reserves for key battery and hydrogen technology minerals located there. Africa is projected to supply up to one-fifth of the world's lithium by 2030.


The US strategy


The exclusion of Africa is a significant gap in global critical minerals strategies. Africa holds vast reserves, including 85% of the world's manganese, 80% of platinum and chromium, 47% of cobalt, and significant shares of graphite and copper. 


The U.S. has a weaker presence in Africa due to years of perceived neglect and a more hands-on approach to foreign investment and partnerships. However, President Biden has made significant efforts to strengthen economic and political ties, organising high-level state visits and pledging $55 billion in investments in Africa between 2022 and 2025. 


The United States has made efforts to compete with China in cobalt extraction and production. Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are major cobalt producers (with over 60% of global cobalt coming from Congo alone), and the US has sought to support their efforts in local production, manufacturing, and battery assembly. In 2022, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with Zambia and the DRC to collaborate on building an electric vehicle battery supply chain. While the US aims for African nations to have diverse partnerships, its strategic investments are seen as countering China’s dominance in critical minerals. The Lobito Corridor, seen to challenge China in Africa, is crucial for mineral transportation, but broader efforts are needed to enhance Africa’s value-added processing capabilities.


However, the West, particularly the US, faces challenges in Africa concerning values. The situation is complex for the US due to its professed commitment to human and labour rights. Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of forced child labour in cobalt mines. Despite this, American companies continue to source cobalt from mines employing child labour raising concerns that the US might act against such practices and potentially push Congo and Zambia closer to China.


Furthermore, progressive ideologies in the US and Europe clash with many global norms, especially regarding religion and LGBTQ issues, which are particularly sensitive in Africa. For instance, Uganda's laws on homosexuality have sparked international criticism, with the World Bank halting funding due to severe penalties for such behaviour. President Museveni defended these laws, accusing progressive institutions of trying to undermine African culture and sovereignty with financial leverage. Attempting to enforce these values risks a backlash, as African people prioritise their faith, culture, and sovereignty over foreign notions of human rights. This dilemma forces Western powers to weigh geopolitical goals against imposing values on traditional societies.


China’s role in Africa


China is the dominant force in the African mining sector, having invested billions over the past several years through its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). African leaders, such as President Akufo-Addo of Ghana, have pointed out the lack of Western infrastructure investment compared to China's proactive approach, highlighting a significant gap in international support. In 2022 alone, China imported $10 billion worth of rare-earth minerals from Africa.


China currently operates most of the lithium mines in Zimbabwe, which boasts the continent's largest lithium reserves. Zimbabwe implemented an export ban on raw ore to incentivize local processing, aiming to boost employment and revenue. Similarly, other African countries like the DRC, Ghana, and Nigeria have similar bans, while Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia require companies to train local workers. While these bans may benefit local communities, they notably strengthen China's control over the global lithium supply chain. Chinese firms such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, Chengxin Lithium Group, and Sinomine Resources Group have invested over $1 billion in Zimbabwe's lithium production alone.


African nations view China as an attractive partner for mining ventures not only due to its substantial financial resources but also because of Beijing’s hands-off approach: Chinese investments do not come with the conditions, such as human rights oversight or sustainability requirements, that Western projects often impose. Alternatively, critics argue that these investments often come with strings attached, reinforcing China's influence over the continent.


Africa is witnessing a shift towards authoritarianism and a decline in democracy. After the Cold War, there was a surge of democratisation across African nations. However, this progress has reversed in the past decade due to various factors such as unmet societal needs and the shortcomings of liberal democracy. Not only has liberal democracy struggled due to insufficient cultural grounding and weak institutions, but China has also emerged as a proponent of authoritarian governance, presenting it as a viable alternative. This marks a direct competition between the West and China regarding fundamental governance ideologies.


African nations’ role?


In this new ‘scramble for Africa’, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. African countries often do not have majority control over their mineral resources. For instance, in the DRC, foreign companies, including Chinese, dominate the mining sector. This lack of control leads to limited benefits for local economies, which is evidence of the DRC’s resource curse. Furthermore, the competition for resources exacerbates governance issues in Africa. Political leaders may align with either Western or Chinese interests, often receiving support that shields them from accountability, thus perpetuating corruption and poor governance.


For Africa to genuinely profit from the surge and excitement surrounding critical minerals, it must receive assistance in enhancing its capacity to process minerals within the continent. Without a shift from solely supplying minerals, African nations risk falling behind. African countries, such as Angola, Zambia, and the DRC, who are key players in this competition, may seek to leverage US and Chinese interests amid the competition. This is strengthened by the fact that Africa's growing economic and demographic significance will keep it central to U.S. and Chinese foreign policy.


Concluding remarks


The competition for critical minerals could lead to geopolitical tensions. To avoid repeating the destabilisation seen during the first Cold War, there is a need for balanced and ethical engagement from both global powers, ensuring that African nations benefit equitably from their resources and that governance standards are upheld. This article also doesn’t include other major players in the region including Russia and its Wagner PMC, supplying 40% of major arms imports to Africa between 2018 and 2022. 


The possibility of China setting up a mining monopoly in Africa is real. To address this, strengthening US commercial diplomacy with Africa is vital. The US lacks strong commercial ties with most African countries, unlike China, which has been actively engaging with Africa for decades. By integrating Africa into critical minerals strategies through collaboration, trade agreements, and economic diplomacy, the US can access Africa's mineral wealth, boost its development, and secure critical minerals for its needs. African nations can aim to secure benefits from both China and the US, leveraging investments for long-term economic growth.


As global security challenges increase, Africa becomes essential for major powers in resource extraction, military assistance, and diplomatic presence, with the outcome of this competition will shape global economic and geopolitical landscapes.


 

Joe Alexander is a First Class Bachelor Arts in International Relations graduate from the University of Leeds, UK. His acute interests are within the fields of geopolitical advisory, international diplomacy, Responsibility to Protect, conflict management, and security studies.

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