A new USIP report emphasizes the importance of the United States government being engaged in the African critical minerals sector if it is to diminish its dependence on China and fortify its national security and foreign policy interests.

Jose Bumba, left, pulls a 220-pound bag of cobalt from a makeshift mine in Kasulo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on April 26, 2021. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)
Jose Bumba, left, pulls a 220-pound bag of cobalt from a makeshift mine in Kasulo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on April 26, 2021. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

The report outlines practical steps that the United States can take to build mineral partnerships with African countries to diversify its supply chains and strengthen peace and security on the continent. It offers options to better support U.S. mining operations in Africa, including by working with African civil society to strengthen the rule of law. It also highlights potential risks, such as greater conflict as the global competition for critical minerals on the African continent intensifies.

Tom Sheehy, a distinguished fellow in USIP’s Africa Center and the report’s executive director, discusses the importance of critical minerals and key recommendations in the report.

What critical minerals are essential to the United States’ economic and national security?

The 2020 Energy Act requires that the United States maintain a list of minerals deemed essential to the U.S. economy and national security. Currently, 50 minerals are listed as being critical to supporting technological innovation in a full range of industries, including the defense industrial base. Updated every three years, this list evolves depending upon a mineral’s importance, availability and technological developments that impact its demand and supply. The list is dynamic: a mineral deemed critical today could be considered not critical tomorrow, and vice versa. 

Some critical minerals are commonly recognized, such as cobalt, lithium and nickel. Cobalt is essential to consumer electronics, including cell phones. Lithium is a critical input to the electric vehicle and long-term storage batteries central to the energy transition. Other minerals are lesser known, including antimony, and important in defense applications. Many critical minerals are not mined in the United States but are mined in African countries.       

Critical mineral development in Africa impacts U.S. interests on another level — namely peace and security in Africa. Much of the world is coming to Africa in search of critical minerals. These natural resources will be developed, our report stresses. The question is how will these minerals be developed? Developed in a way that contributes to African economic development and promotes social stability? Or, as we’ve often seen, will these resources be developed in a destructive and exploitative way?

The USIP report aims to encourage critical mineral partnerships between the United States and African countries that are mutually beneficial. This includes ensuring that critical mineral development does not fuel conflict, a U.S. interest.             

What are the potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with the United States’ dependency on  China for key critical minerals?

Most experts view the United States as being too heavily dependent on China for too many critical minerals. It’s common sense not to be overly reliant on one supplier, especially a top economic and geopolitical competitor, for any commodity or product. Of course, these concerns are heightened as the U.S. relationship with China grows more tense across the board, including as Beijing broadly threatens U.S. national security.

One critical mineral we look at is graphite, essential to many industrial processes requiring lubricants, and products including batteries and fuel cells. The United States produces little to no natural graphite, meaning we are virtually 100 percent reliant on imports for graphite supply, with China being the leading import source. China uses its strong market position to manipulate the market, and recently imposed a graphite export ban of significant concern.

The United States has a project underway to support a graphite mining project in Mozambique, with processing to be done in Louisiana — an effort to counter Chinese dominance of this critical mineral. This is an example of the United States looking to Africa to help overcome a critical mineral vulnerability.    

It’s important to realize that China’s dominant position as a supplier of many critical minerals has been years in the making and won’t be upended overnight. China has systematically engaged with Africa, including through its Belt and Road Initiative, for decades now, well outpacing the United States in resources and political attention committed to Africa. It is encouraging that the United States is more focused on African critical minerals, but progress establishing a significant U.S. mining presence will take time. And China will remain a major player in Africa, regardless. However, we conclude that U.S. interests justify this effort for many reasons, including diversifying its critical minerals supply chain while helping African nations retain some value for their mineral resources by doing more mineral processing.  

What are the security implications of the global competition for critical minerals in countries where these minerals are being sourced?

The development of natural resources often heightens conflict, with security implications. Too often in African countries and elsewhere, the benefits of natural resource development go to too few, while many more bear its costs, including population displacement and environmental degradation. This can lead to resentment and even violent conflict. Unfortunately, African governments are challenged to manage these conflicts to see that the benefits of development are widely shared, and damages mitigated.

For example, the resource-rich northern region of Mozambique has suffered violent conflict recently. The roots of this violence vary, but there is little doubt that the jihadist groups that have killed tens of thousands of Mozambicans have seized upon general discontent with the development of natural gas and other natural resources to win some support among the populace. Thankfully, regional intervention has stemmed the violence, but the Mozambican government will have to do better to ensure that natural resource benefits are more broadly shared.   

The Wagner Group, or what’s now called “Russia Africa Corps,” operates solely to enrich itself by propping up authoritarian and exploitative governments with security services, at no benefit to a nation’s people. There is no pretension of commercial transparency where this outfit operates —including Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan — so it’s hard to make a definitive assessment, but this model exhibits no concern for how fairly resources are distributed, labor conditions or environmental standards, or the other potential downsides of natural resource development. In fact, there are numerous reports of Wagner forces killing African miners. Unfortunately, Africa has been cursed by Wagner-type exploiters going back centuries.     

What needs to be done to build a more robust and transparent critical minerals sector?

No doubt, mining is a challenging industry. One of the reasons that the U.S. critical mineral dependency is acute is that mining is unpopular at home and projects are often opposed. If we’re going to operate in African mining sectors, the United States should do so in the most responsible way possible.

Transparency and the rule of law are critical. If African countries are to attract the foreign investment from high-standard foreign operators needed to take advantage of this moment, they must respect that investment by honoring contracts and resisting arbitrary rulings and taking other irregular actions. U.S. and other Western mining operators will respond to mining project opportunities in Africa, but only if there is sufficient confidence in the business climate. If not, there are many competing investment opportunities worldwide.

We recommend that more attention and resources should be devoted to African critical minerals aimed at creating mutually beneficial relationships with African partners. U.S. economic and national defense interests warrant it.

One of the biggest challenges to greater investment in the African critical minerals sector is infrastructure. The mining and processing of critical minerals is energy intensive. Yet many African countries are energy starved. Critical minerals also must be moved to market. Unfortunately, African roads, railways and ports are lacking and inefficient. These challenges aren’t insurmountable, but they’re formidable. That’s why the Biden administration has focused on the Lobito Corridor project linking Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, an example of what can be done to improve infrastructure.

What are the priority policy recommendations for the U.S. government mentioned in the report to further critical minerals development and supply chain diversification?

The United States needs to diversify its critical minerals supply chain, especially away from China.  Certain African countries can play an important role. It’s going to take a lot of effort, however, for the United States to be a serious player in the mining sector. 

The good news is that many Africans are eager to have U.S. investment, reducing dependence on China. But only a few U.S. mining companies operate in Africa. The U.S. government is aiming to change that.   

This report makes many recommendations to better support U.S. and Western mining operations in Africa. The senior study group offers several proposals to strengthen the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, a critical agency in this effort, for example. The United States needs a much stronger commercial diplomacy presence on the ground in Africa. Prospective mining opportunities are best identified in person. But U.S. embassies in Africa are woefully understaffed, including in key critical mineral-producing countries. We do have allies in this critical minerals effort. The United States and several other countries have created the Minerals Security Partnership to diversify supplies and “ensure that critical minerals are produced, processed, and recycled in a manner that supports countries in realizing the full economic development benefit of their mineral resources.” We suggest ways to strengthen that partnership, including better engaging African states.  

The United States should be realistic regarding critical minerals in Africa. There will be limits to the impact of its policies, however constructive. Ultimately, Africans, not foreigners, will decide how their critical minerals are developed. Hopefully it will contribute to their economic development. And it is private mining and companies in related industries that will or won’t invest in African countries. But the U.S. government has an important role to play, especially in de-risking mining investment — assisting African civil society in strengthening the rule of law, coordinating and strengthening U.S. investment programs, and facilitating knowledge and skills sharing and development with Africans. We recommend that more attention and resources should be devoted to African critical minerals aimed at creating mutually beneficial relationships with African partners. U.S. economic and national defense interests warrant it.


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