Tom LaTourrette is a senior physical scientist and interim director of the Community Health and Environmental Policy program at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are the author’s own.
China dominates global supply chains for nearly all critical mineral resources. Especially important are elements such as nickel, cobalt, lithium, copper, and the rare earths that power decarbonization technologies such as batteries, electric motors, and turbines. The rapidly increasing demand for these minerals has rekindled interest in extracting polymetallic nodules from the deep seabed.
China controls the supply of these resources through extraction, either within its borders (especially in the case of rare earths) or through ownership of critical foreign mineral resources (for example, cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
It also dominates mineral processing, controlling the vast majority of global operations. A recent study by S&P Global Inc. found that 11 of the 16 companies that make nickel sulfate are in China. The study projects that China will produce 824 billion metric tons of nickel sulfate per year by 2030, while North America and Europe will produce just 146 billion metric tons.
China’s dominance is the result of a long-term, dedicated effort to secure mineral resources, build extensive processing capacity, and make that capacity available at rates that underbid its competition. This strategy has benefitted from Chinese government support through state-owned-enterprises and financial backing.