America, Communist China in Race for Lithium

‘The large automakers have been scouting resources on a national and international level … to try to balance their dependence on Chinese suppliers.’

AP/Rich Pedroncelli
Electric cars at a charging station at Sacramento, California, April 13, 2022. AP/Rich Pedroncelli

As President Biden seeks to rid our roads of combustion engines, Communist China is looking to corner the market for electric vehicle components, including, on this side of the Pacific, South America’s “lithium triangle.” 

The triangle of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile contains more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, according to the United States Geological Survey. Mining companies from America, Canada, South Korea, France, and the United Kingdom have been looking to increase their lithium exploitation there. Now, Beijing is attempting to use its regional allies to take over. 

Communist China controls about 90 percent of the existing lithium battery manufacturing process, according to Rice University’s Baker Institute fellow, Michelle Michot Foss. “The large automakers have been scouting resources on a national and international level, and looking for new partners and providers, to try to balance their dependence on Chinese suppliers,” Ms. Foss told Voz de America

Washington is aware of Beijing’s attempt to take over the global lithium market and those of other energy resources expected to play large roles in the future. “When it comes to solar panels and electric car batteries — key industries for the 21st century economy — we cannot allow ourselves to become completely dependent on China,” Secretary of State Blinken said in a speech last month that addressed America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China. 

Yet, he added, “China is also integral to the global economy and to our ability to solve challenges from climate to Covid. Put simply, the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future,” and “that’s why this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today.”

Lithium resources are abundant around the world, but so far production is relatively low: 100,000 tons in 2021, according to the United States Geological Survey. By 2030, demand is expected to be 2 million tons, of which 85 percent will be directed to batteries for electric vehicles. 

The American Department of Energy announced this year that it would provide $2.9 billion to increase the production of batteries for electric vehicles. The fund is expected to ensure that America can produce all materials needed “to increase economic competitiveness, energy independence, and national security.”

In Argentina, mining companies are investing about $4.5 million to increase the yearly production of lithium to 120,000 tons in 2023 and 2024 from the current 6.2 tons, according to the Cámara Argentina de Empresarios Mineros of Argentina. 

Bolivia, with the world’s biggest lithium reserves, is in the process of defining its commercial exploitation. “They can supply lithium to the United States for companies that are building batteries and fabricating electric vehicles,” a deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, Benjamin Gedan, told Voz de America

Mr. Gedan said that Communist China has a history of using economic interdependence as a weapon, and said it should not be allowed to control the electric car industry.

Mr. Blinken confirmed that Mr. Biden is developing a strategy to reinforce America’s strengths and to rely on a network of allies and partners to work toward a more sustainable electric future. 


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