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Navigating Without a Map? The Challenge of Decoupling from China

The long-planned and carefully crafted meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden Chinese President Xi Jinping near San Francisco may have gone off without a hitch, and defense dialogues between Beijing and Washington may have been restored, but analysts are not entirely optimistic that re-opened lines of communications will ultimately resolve deeply-rooted disagreements between the two countries on a variety of issues.

One key point of contention was and is the global race for critical minerals, in the context of which the U.S. has taken steps to decouple from Beijing in the wake of pandemic-induced supply chain challenges, surging demand and rising trade and geopolitical tensions.  However, with China controlling much of the critical minerals supply chain, diversifying supply chains away from China is a daunting proposition given the complexity of value chains.

“The US attempt to pull away from China in the electric vehicle (EV) race is like navigating a road trip without a map, given the vast expanse of China’s routes through the critical minerals supply chain that is essential for EV battery production,” writes Sonja Cheung of the Asia Business Council in a new piece for the Hongkong-based South China Morning Post, adding that Washington’s efforts need to be more “assertive” to succeed.

Cheung points to the fact that while China owns most of the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has substantial lithium investments worldwide, the U.S. has so far  – while in talks with several other countries and the European Union “made just one trade deal, with Japan earlier this year.”  (A deal with nickel-rich Indonesia was inked after Cheung’s piece was released).

She argues that “to stand a realistic chance of countering China’s strong position in the EV market, Washington needs to double down on combining policy support, financial incentives and advances in technology, to reduce its reliance on imported materials.”

Concludes Cheung:

“The blueprint for accelerating the US EV industry is multifaceted – it involves not only extending tax credits but also installing a robust charging infrastructure across the nation and ensuring EVs are more competitively priced.

The US stands at a strategic juncture and investing in Canada’s abundant critical minerals supply could be a game-changer. As the world’s fifth-largest producer of graphite and nickel, Canada is not only a neighbour but also a natural ally with the potential to be a powerhouse in lithium, magnesium and rare earth elements – all vital in EV machinery. Strengthening this partnership could fortify North American supply chains and reduce reliance on China.”

To those of us used to asking Siri for directions, going on a road trip without a map sounds daunting, but this is one trip the U.S. cannot skip.  Thankfully, there are important pointers in the form of a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” approach the United States can use to navigate the road ahead, encompassing increased domestic production, permitting reform, recycling, R&D, and friend-shoring.  Of course, as is the case all too often, the biggest challenge ahead may be making it past the Washington, DC gridlock.