In the wake of sensationalized headlines pertaining to the ongoing tech-wars between the United States and China, one may ponder over the overt and covert implications of this growing dilemma. Visualizing a trajectory with regard to the recent events that have been observed over the course of this tech-war, the most pressing developments would certainly be the United States trade-blockade against Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, and interestingly enough, the resurgence of the geopolitical tussle over rare-earths between the United States and China, with Africa being the unfortunate playing field. As security experts from the United States continue to stress on the ‘security risks’ attributed to Huawei and its products, the tech-wars have reached a peak where all options are to be explored in order to gain the upper-hand in the field of science and technology. Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on fifth June, with this meeting garnering considerable media coverage in order to draw out China’s next strategy amid the frenzy generated by the United States’ trade-blockade involving the blacklisting of Huawei.
‘Protectionism and unilateral approaches are on the rise, and a policy of force and hegemonism is increasingly taking hold,’ stated Xi Jinping. This statement, coupled with strongly-worded rhetoric exchanged between the United States and China leaves one pondering over what the next move may be from both sides. While this meeting resulted in a deal between Russian telecommunications company ‘Mobile TeleSystems’ (MTS) and Huawei towards developing the 5G network in Russia (a key, strategic development for the telecommunication sector between the two countries), the news concerning the United States and China’s revived dispute over the supply of rare-earths in Africa harbours an incredibly unique position in the discussion concerning strategizing and exploring tactical options.
Rare-earth elements (REE), as defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), are one of a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table, most notably the 15 lanthanides in addition to scandium and yttrium. The reason behind the inclusion of the rare-earths dilemma in the tech-wars between the United States and China are primarily due to their key, geo-chemical properties. Utilized in the production of cellphones, national defense equipment and other high-tech industries due to their magnetic and conductive properties, it comes as no surprise to see that their growing, global demand has come at the forefront of the United States and China’s geo-political dispute.
It is pertinent to note that China controls 97 per cent of the world’s supply of rare-earths; however, in 2015 the World Trade Organization (WTO) reported that ‘the application of export duties [by China] and export quotas to rare-earths, tungsten and molybdenum as well as restriction on trading rights of enterprises exporting rare-earths and molybdenum which were found to be inconsistent with WTO rules, had been removed.’ Amid reports of a seemingly standard visit by Xi Jinping to a Chinese company associated with rare-earths extraction, American security analysts were quick to label this development as a resurgence of the old, geo-political dispute.
Keeping the media guessing and speculating over the nature of the visit, Xi Jinping stated that ‘We should firmly grasp the strategic basis of technological innovation, master more key core technologies and seize the commanding heights of industry development,’ adding that ‘Rare-earth is not only an important strategic resource, but also a non-renewable resource.’ To revisit the point concerning China choosing to explore its options in order to attain the upper-hand in the tech-wars, the choice of leaning towards weaponization of rare-earths seems a palpable reality – one that is certain to rile up the Pentagon.
With the United States’ unavoidable reliance on China for roughly 80 per cent of its rare-earths imports, one is left to ponder over the implications of this aforementioned weaponization (if this policy were to be materialized). The United States, too, is keen to explore all options to curb this reliance on China in the wake of this politically-charged tension between the two countries – it was reported that the United States Department of Defence held a meeting with Malawi’s Mkango Resources Ltd concerning this dilemma. If China were to substantially reduce its exports to the United States as a reactionary measure, the United States would have to find alternate sources of reserves for their own high-tech industries, especially for the defense sector.
A material engineer with the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency Jason Nie said of exploring alternatives: ‘We are looking for any source of supply outside China. We want diversity. We don’t want a single-source producer.’ Interestingly, this statement draws conspicuous parallels to Xi Jinping’s statement concerning the ‘policy of force and hegemonisim.’ However, upon the mention of hegemonisim, brute force and diversity, one is pushed to contemplate the predicament that Africa faces over its own inclusion in this notorious trade-war.
Echoes of the colonial term ‘scramble for Africa’ can be heard from what may be termed as a shadow war. Given the ambiguity with regard to defining a shadow war, a common understanding of this term pertains to proxy wars – ‘a war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and may have help and support from these.’ In this case however, there are clear differences concerning China and the United States’ involvement in Africa. While China has adopted a more trade-centered approach, the United States (over the years – from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration) has employed a predominantly military-centered approach.
From Huawei’s investment in Africa’s telecommunications sector, to the string of American military operations in the continent, it is clear that Africa finds itself in a difficult position. As a United Nations (UN) news agency reported of an estimated 166-billion-dollar trade figure for China-Africa in 2011, it is expected that this number will only continue to rise.
The American blacklisting of Huawei, however, is sure to carry consequences for Africa who is relying on the company to bolster its own telecommunications sector. From all of this involvement, whether trade-oriented or militaristic, a pressing question arises: why Africa? What is the underlying reason behind choosing Africa as the holy battleground? One just has to look back at the plentiful, natural resources in the continent and can begin to put two-and-two together. As mentioned before, the subject of rare-earth riches in Africa carry enormous significance with regard to answering the former questions.
Given the resource’s centrality in the production of military equipment, it is not surprising to see the commodification of this material being at the core of the tussle between China’s economic ambitions and the United States’ militaristic objectives.
Of course this trajectory of developments is sure to leave one confused with a plethora of questions, given the complexity of this dilemma – from Huawei to the Pentagon, to the Kremlin and more, a number of international actors’ involvement is observed. Is the weaponization of rare-earths by China only inevitable? Will the United States be able to seek alternatives if they aim to curb their reliance on China in order to keep their own high-tech industries up and running? If these alternatives are found, how long could it take before the results materialize – given that China is already waving its trump-card?
Did the tirade over Huawei unintentionally and intentionally (?) pave way for this dispute over rare-earths to be revisited once again? The latter question leaves one to contemplate over the growing, over-arching picture. And what is Russia’s position in this burgeoning, geopolitical dispute – merely that of a silent spectator, or more than meets the eye? What about Africa – with its land and its resources quickly becoming the playing-field for this tussle between the global economy’s giants? Questions remain lingering, the rhetorical jives continuous and the strategizing ever-so alarming – the world remains fixed to see how this dispute plays out and whether any long-term resolutions can be envisioned.
Ana Tawfiq Husain is a researcher at the PIIA and a student of Habib University.