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A New Critical Minerals World Order? — A Look at the Post-Cold War Realignment in the Wake of Covid, War in Ukraine and Geopolitical and Economic Tension

This week, world leaders are gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. They are facing, as the New York Times’s Roger Cohen (NYT) titled his reporting on the meeting, a “New World Order.”  

Leaders must “pivot to the new reality provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the growth of extreme inequalities and aggressive Russian and Chinese autocracies,” writes the NYT.

In the critical mineral realm, these recent events have served as a catalyst for the new “Great Game,” which the geopolitics of mineral resource supply had triggered and which had gained momentum with the adoption of the Paris agreement in 2015 which in turn had committed countries to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewables.

Over the course of the last few months, awareness of the importance of securing critical mineral supply chains and decoupling form adversaries, i.e. China, continued to grow against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile geopolitical landscape and mounting environmental pressures.  While, as the New York Times suggests, “the shape of an alternative international system is unclear,” we are seeing first steps towards a realignment as nations around the world rethink and reorganize their critical mineral supply chains.  

ARPN has discussed several developments involving the United States and key allies like Canada and Australia, but Asian nations, too, are taking steps to diversify their supply chains away from China, particularly in the rare earths (REE) space.

In spite of having signed a deal with Vietnam on rare earth development after having experienced the ramifications of an over-reliance on Chinese minerals first hand with the 2010 rare earths standoff between China and Japan, Japan’s domestic rare earth production has remained limited to date, with more than two thirds of the country’s rare earth supplies coming from China.  With demand surging in the context of growing EV markets, Japan is looking to “curb excessive dependence on specific countries, carry forward next-generation semiconductor development and manufacturing bases, secure stable supply for critical goods including rare earth, and promote capital reinforcement of private enterprises with critical goods and technologies,” according to a government strategy paper cited by Qu4tro Strategies this month.

To do so, Tokyo inked a critical mineral agreement with Australia in October of 2022 and Japan’s Organization for Metals and Energy Security (Jogmec) is working with private companies to take control of its holding in a joint venture to develop dysprosium-terbium heavy rare earths in Namibia.  Jogmec is also an investor in Australia-based Lynas Rare Earths’s latest push to increase its meaning capacity in Western Australia.

Vietnam, not traditionally known as a global mining powerhouse, is looking to become a key player in the global REE supply chain.  While, as Qu4tro Strategies outlines, North Korea is believed to be home to the world’s largest rare earth deposits, Vietnam’s large REE reserves are more viable as an alternative to Chinese REEs, as North Korea’s political situation and economic sanctions prevent the country from becoming a link in the global supply chain.

While exploration in Vietnam has so far been unable to tap into the country’s considerable mineral potential, that may be changing. As a fast-growing economy, Vietnam is attracting companies trying to find new regional bases as U.S.-Chinese trade tensions rise, and post-Covid supply chains remain strained.

In recent months, several countries have entered into partnership agreements with bot the Vietnamese Government and private companies to establish “an integrated supply chain for rare earths and other critical minerals.”

Qu4tro Strategies cites the December signing of an agreement between Vietnam and South Korea to jointly explore and develop core minerals including rare earths in Vietnam, as well as a partnership between Australia Strategic Minerals (ASM) and Vietnam Rare Earths for “long-term supply of rare earths to provide feedstock for ASM’s Korean Metals Plant.” 

Trade between Canada and Vietnam is reported to increase under the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is actively exploring the “potential for the countries to collaborate on green energy, including sustainable mining and rare earth elements.”

The Middle East, traditionally known as a leader in the fossil fuel realm, could also emerge as a critical mineral player in a newly realigned world, particularly as nations like Saudi Arabia incentivize investment towards creating integrated value chains, with the country currently processing 145 exploration license applications sent in by foreign companies, according to a new report issued by the Future Minerals Forum in Collaboration with the Payne Institute for Public Policy Colorado School of Mines.

Meanwhile, Africa’s resource richness is well known. As the Future Minerals Forum’s report outlines, trade tensions with China as well as Russia’s ongoing war have triggered many Western countries to turn to Africa for investment opportunities in critical mineral supply during 2022.

Discussions between Minerals Security Partnership countries (see our post here) have begun involving African regions as targets for potential partnerships, and five countries — the DRC, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia – have initiated conversations on development opportunities to “diversify and bolster critical mineral supply chains while lowering trade reliance with China and Russia” during the UN General Assembly conference in September 2022.  Deals made at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which included a commitment of over $150 million dollars into Zambia’s mining sector to develop copper and Cobalt, are a case in point.

However, as the authors of the Future Minerals Forum’s report point out, of Africa, “the scale and pace of investment inflows will largely hinge on the restructuring of domestic governance and policy changes.”

As leaders continue to deliberate on the new realities of the post-Cold War world order in Davos this week, we will continue our focus on the realignment underway in the minerals sector and will zero in on the West in our second post this week.