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The War for Raw Materials

Gagliano Giuseppe

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The war for raw materials amounts to a reshuffling of the power relations among Western nations, on one hand, and the emerging and/or developing nations, on the other. The rise of China, BRICS, and the growing strength of the sovereign wealth funds of Arab nations, which are oil exporters, provides the evidence. Resources are powerful weapons in economic warfare, and everything suggests that the conflict will only intensify. The International Energy Agency estimates that world demand for energy will increase by 50% from now until 2030,especially owing to the growth of India and China. Ensuring ready procurement of materials, therefore, assumes crucial importance for nations. In 2007, the Committee on Critical Mineral Impacts of the U.S. Economy published a report with a list of eleven minerals that were particularly important for the leading industrial sectors of the U.S. Economy, due to their rarity and value. The list includes rhodium, used primarily in the manufacture of catalytic converters, which is particularly abundant in Russia but also in South Africa.

As guarantor of its national economy, every nation has, in fact, drawn up a list of the resources that it considers necessary and on which a significant number of current geo-economic conflicts depends.

As Liberalist logic goes, trade should produce closer and closer integration among the economic operators in various nations, which are linked less and less to specific reference territories, while reducing the risks of conflict and the role played by the nation at the same time.

This highly ideological vision is losing credibility. Territories have resisted and, along with them, the notion of control. The financial crisis that began in 2008 seriously undermined their citizens’ trust in the market’s capacity for self-regulation. The various factors that contribute to a nation’s power include its possession and exploitation of the riches of its subsoil, sea bottoms, and arable land. In a world expected to reach a population of 9 billion by 2050,the logic of self-sufficiency or lesser dependence now drives nations to compete in guaranteeing their supply of raw materials more than ever before. Competition for the control of raw materials – which has never stopped structuring international relations – has demonstrated a particularly significant intensification in recent years. The surge in agricultural raw material prices triggered a wave of arable land-grabbing by foreign investors in 2008, predominant among which, the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and Arab Emirates. Most of their purchases were made in the continents of Africa and Latin America, where – by no coincidence – 90% of the world’s as-yet unutilized arable land is located. Appetites like these generate tension and rivalry. Hydrocarbons, of course, remain the center of strategic interests. After acquiring the possibility to intensely exploit its reserves of shale gas, the United States has become self-sufficient. As a result, its former supplier, Saudi Arabia, has witnessed a weakening of its bonds with the U.S., its protector against Iran. Its febrile behavior during the crises in Iraq and Syria is due in part to this evolution of international relations. The case of Greenland – whose oil reserves are now estimated as being half of those of Saudi Arabia –is also exemplary. Combined with the results of the referendum regarding autonomy (75% in favor), this new circumstance will now give greater force to the movement for independence as the larger powers are already jockeying for the best bargaining positions.

One sector that will apparently be particularly significant for international tensions in the future is that of mineral resources: more and more often nations with large mineral deposits are opting for state control. Well-known documented examples are offered by China, Russia, and Bolivia, and the list might soon include Madagascar, which, after being long subjected to crushing passive exploitation by foreign mining companies, announced in 2014 the creation of a public mining company to exploit its resources at a national level.

One vital mineral resource that is indispensable to aeronautics, given that it represents between 15 and 20% of the metal used in the construction of a modern airplane, is titanium. It is no wonder that the Boeing Company and the United Technologies Corporation have decided to stockpile it.

The world’s leading titanium supplier is the Russian VSMPO group. Will these two American companies, whose decision was revealed last August, suffer retaliation in the context of the crisis in Ukraine? It must be recalled that U.S. law prohibits companies that work for its Defense Department from purchasing titanium abroad. However, the two groups produce for both the civil and the military sector.

In addition to Ukraine, another area of international tension created by resource grabbing is the China Seas, where the level of interdependence between the leading powers (South Korea, Japan, People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan) is certainly growing, and in the opinion of Paul Tourret, Director of the Higher Institute of Maritime Economics, such a mesh of interests should have reduced the risk of conflict even if – as the expert himself seems to imply – the sharing of the same geo-economic interests is of little use in guaranteeing stability in the region.

The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands that began in 2010 and flared up again in 2012 and 2013 even led Beijing to lower its exports of rare metals to Japan. This group of 17metals, whose leading producer is unquestionably China, is indispensible to the production of products with high-technological content, one of the mainstays of the Japanese economy. Acknowledging that this reduction in exports had effectively weakened its economy, Japan wasted no time in reacting: on March 13, 2012, supported by the U.S. and the EU, Japan denounced China to the WTO, which in fact reprimanded the conduct of the Chinese government. This did not prompt Beijing to change its tune, however. In addition to putting its faith in procedures at this level, Japan recently set up the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) and funds it with 15 billion euros annually. The entity operates on three levels: supporting Japanese mining companies abroad (particularly in their purchases or entry into foreign company shareholding structures), providing a diplomatic channel in the stipulation of long-term contracts between nations, and supporting national research in the energy and mining sector. In 2012, Japan’s Minister of Industry announced that new trading partners like Kazakhstan and Australia would help reduce its dependence on Chinese rare metals. The private sector supports the national effort: through its branches, auto manufacturer Toyota has become one of the prime investors in mining sectors in Canada and Australia as another way of weaning Japan from Chinese supplies. Nations take different approaches to the geo-economic problems posed by the procurement of metals and minerals. The first is to get back into the markets, which, as reported by certain experts, are impenetrable, fragmented, and do not offer sufficient information.

Some industrial societies resort to the expedient of financial insurance that guarantees the purchase of substances at a fixed price for a certain amount of time. However, this sometimes turns out to be a blunt instrument, however, given that nations often and willingly ignore the guarantees granted in defense of their own best interests. The second option nations take is when they become aware of the geopolitical necessities for territorial control and implement a long-term purchasing diversification strategy. Not all nations vaunt the same strategic prowess as Japan, however; Europe, in particular, demonstrates a deficit of awareness in this field.

The rising demand for metals and/or minerals stems from the arrival of a new tier of industrialized nations that includes China, India, and Brazil, which all have benefitted from the delocalization of certain European heavy industries and manufacturing companies.

In the end, future tensions regarding the availability of certain materials entail the question of national security in procuring the resources indispensible to strategic industry chains (nuclear, defense, aeronautics, electronics, the automobile sector, etc.). Nature has permitted the creation of monopolies over certain resources: China supplies 93% of the world’s magnesium and 90% of its antimony. Brazil meets 90% of the international demand for niobium, while the U.S. provides 88% of its beryllium. In order to hedge the risk of economic dependence on the holders of these raw materials, other world powers have already laid out specific strategies to ensure themselves resources deemed strategic by establishing closer diplomatic relations with the nations that have what they need. The United States, Russia, and China have implemented policies for stockpile management and flow control while taking steps to secure production areas, especially through the purchase of mineral deposits and companies operating there. The volume of investments for the mining of rare substances in Greece has grown since 2014. At the start of the same year, the NBC news network revealed that the government’s scientific agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, had conducted an aerial study of the soil in Afghanistan in 2006 that permitted the mapping of the mineral resources that the nation possesses in abundance. The American researchers estimated quantities of 2.2 billion tons of ferrous material, 1.4 million tons of rare materials (such as lanthanum, neodymium, and cerium), also aluminum, gold, zinc, mercury, and lithium. The crisis in the Ukraine has allegedly driven Russia to seriously consider the idea of establishing a rare materials cartel with China, with Russia having the largest holdings after China. Unlike most others, however, Russia has deposits of all 17such materials. Therefore, Russia would have every reason to exploit these resources, also bearing in mind that Chinese production in this sector is instead currently tailing off, obliging Beijing to import them. Russia’s idea of closer links to China is also fed by its desire for retaliation against the United States and the European Union.

Owing to their use in industrial processes, the so-called platinoids or platinum group metals (PGM) are the object of much contention among the world’s industrial powers owing to their use in industrial processes. Utilized not only in traditional petrochemical, arms, aeronautic, medical, and agrifood sectors and costume jewelry, they are also crucial to the telecommunications and information technology industries, especially in the production of cell phones and computers. Palladium, for example, is used in nearly every type of electronic device, primarily as a part of high-performance capacitors or microchips. Ruthenium and platinum instead play important roles in increasing data storage capacity on hard disks but also in producing liquid crystal displays. Platinum is also the key component of various types of fuel cell. Associated with rhodium (diesel vehicles), it plays a key role in the production of the catalytic converters that reduce exhaust gas toxicity.

In addition to their growing importance in a variety of industrial processes, these materials are rare and concentrated in only a few specific geographical areas in which a sort of semi-monopoly is held, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. Southern Africa’s platinum-rich areas have become authentic theaters of national and international battle for the control of these materials that often degenerate into armed struggle. The fact is that no alternatives to their use have yet been found.

Competition between Anglo˗American, the world’s leading producer of PGM, and Asian, primarily Chinese competitors, in Zimbabwe’s Grand Dyke mines, is just one episode in an economic war of much wider scope. This battle is part of the long-term duel between Western nations and China for the control of Africa’s strategic resources that began with the fall of Mobutu in the Congo. After gaining control of a considerable part of the Central African Copperbelt that contains over half of the world’s reserves and mines for cobalt, an indispensable element in the production of electric batteries, China is making a similar attempt to corner the world’s supply of platinum, an essential metal for oil refineries that is mined above all in Angola.

Zimbabwe’s PGM are essential for China, which possesses only 1.1%of the world’s reserves, and play a dual role in ensuring its economic security by enabling it to set up its own complete petrochemical production chain, in this way gaining independence from Anglo˗American suppliers and by allowing Beijing to produce the catalytic converters it needs to reduce air pollution, a campaign that has turned into a national priority now that China has become the largest motor vehicle market in the world. It therefore comes as no surprise that PGM refining constituted the pivotal role of the agreement signed between China, Angola, and Zimbabwe in 2009.

This agreement poses a threat to Anglo˗American, which had until then had held a monopoly over Zimbabwe’s PGM mining. The British company continues to control the deposits in Southern Africa, which are more abundant than those of Zimbabwe, but those of the latter are distinguished in a way that makes them almost unique in their rare combination of both platinum and palladium, the two most highly desired PGM in the world.

This loss of part of the Zimbabwe reserves might spell the future end of the worldwide control of the PGM market by the Anglo˗American company, which has been the leading economic operator in Southern Africa for around two centuries.

Political instability and insecurity reign in the part of Africa that runs from Merensky Rift to Grand Dyke, where local political leaders wage wars in their attempts to gain control of the income derived from platinoid sales, basing their right to do so on their past as “freedom fighters”. In Zimbabwe, this operation is conducted by the former hero of the nation’s independence, Robert Mugabe, who adopts nationalistic, anti-imperialist rhetoric to accuse foreign companies of implementing neo-colonialism policies with support from Great Britain. He goes on to claim that the Anglo-American company has stoked political opposition against him, abetted by both the United States and the European Union. The leader of the opposition movement is Morgan Tsvangirai, formerly a company employee.

Robert Mugabe’s use of nationalist rhetoric to instrumentalize the question of international monopoly over the nation’s economy had served to both masquerade his less than exalting results in running the country and to sidestep demands for more political freedom. The fact that Mugabe’s nationalism amounted to mere rhetoric is clear from his scarcely coherent political conduct: following a hike in mineral product prices, in 2007 he proposed an Empowerment and Indigenization Bill for the economy in general and the mining sector in particular, and had it passed. Just one year later, Mugabe sold the mineral rights to an American hedge fund in exchange for a loan of around one hundred million dollars, which he then used to finance his election campaign. He proceeded in the same way in privatizing a mineral deposit that had become public property after he had previously expropriated it from Anglo˗American.

In short, Mugabe uses the nation’s mineral resources as if they were an automatic teller machine for the funding of his own political career. Also in South Africa, the ruling class that had come to power on the merits of its struggle against the previous apartheid regime has since displayed remarkable nonchalance in channeling the nation’s mineral wealth to its own advantage by stipulating agreements with foreign multinationals.

The massacre by police of miners in Marikana striking for higher wages in 2012 demonstrates the degree to which the miracle of South Africa is only a mirage for a large part of the nation’s black population.

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Turkey and Trump’s sanctions-based “political economy”

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By the end of last year, the Turkish economy had slipped into a technical recession, boosting in 12 months by only 2.6%, despite the fact that a year ago the government expected GDP to grow by 3.8%. The slowdown is particularly striking against the background of sustainable development over the past seven years: in 2010, the country’s GDP grew by 8.5%, in 2011 – by 11.1%, in 2012 – by 4.8%, in 2013 – by 8.5%, in 2014 – by 5.2%, in 2015 – by 6.1%, in 2016 – by 3.2% and in 2017 – by 7.4%  This trend has turned Turkey into one of the fastest developing economies, earning it 17th position worldwide in nominal GDP and 13th in the GDP value regarding purchasing power parity.

The situation changed by the middle of 2018, when relations with Washington deteriorated to the point of a trade war. The Trump administration resorted to the much-practiced method of targeting the “dissenters”: it raised drastically customs duties on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey (which, however, did not prevent the United States from becoming the second buyer of Turkish metallurgical produce by the end of the year). On August 1 the US introduced sanctions against Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers. At that time, the main stumbling block (at least on the surface of it) was Turkey’s refusal to release American priest Andrew Brunson who was detained in 2016 on charges of  espionage and links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement along with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party. For some time Donald Trump’s propaganda slogans were dominated by the maxim “to save rank-and-file pastor Brunson”.

Turkey responded by slapping import duties on American goods: cars, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics. And, of course, it put two US ministers on its sanctions list.

But the forces were clearly far from equal. As a result, the Turkish lira collapsed. At the beginning of 2018 one dollar traded for 3.8 liras, whereas by the end of the year it sold for 5.3 liras. Moreover, at the peak of the weakening of the national currency, the dollar cost almost 7 liras. The Central Bank of Turkey was forced to raise the interest rate, even despite opposition from the country’s omnipotent president. Today, the rate has climbed up to the red level of 24%. Consequently, there has been a drop in the sales of real estate, cars, and a number of other industrial goods. Prospects for inflation have materialized too – in October, inflation hit a fifteen-year high, exceeding 25 percent.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the crisis on Turkey’s foreign ill-wishers. This time – with a lion’s share of truth.

In October, the court sentenced Branson to imprisonment for exactly the time he had already served. The pastor returned home, mutual sanctions were lifted, which partly calmed the markets. But only partly.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the country’s GDP increased by 2.6% by the end of the year. At the same time, the service sector grew by 5.6%, agrarian – by 1.3%, industrial – by only 1.1%. Exports, compared to the previous year, increased by 7% – to 168 billion dollars (a record figure in the entire history of the Turkish Republic). Foreign trade deficit, amid a boost of imports prices,  decreased by 28.4% to $ 55 billion, while imports proper dropped by 4.6% to 223 billion dollars. Tourism revenues increased by 12.3% to 29.5 billion

At first glance, the situation is far from critical, but, according to the TSI, over the year, per capita GDP dropped from $10,597 to $ 9,632; household expenditures, although going up by 1.1% on the year, went down by 8.9% in the fourth quarter. In December unemployment rate among the able-bodied population reached 13.5% – more than 4.3 million people.

Nevertheless, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Treasury and Finance of Turkey, sounded optimistic: “The worst days for the economy are over. The government is confident that the growth of the Turkish economy in 2019 will match the forecasts laid down in the New Economic Program. ”

In general, the above-mentioned program envisages the implementation of reforms that will protect export-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises, strengthen their competitiveness, stimulate the economy to secure a high level of added value. An important part of the document is a clause that stipulates cutting government spending on expensive infrastructure projects, often designed to foster the image rather than the economy.

Specialists differ in assessing the prospects for the Turkish economy: forecasts vary from a slight increase to a further decline. In particular, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Economists expect the cooling to continue. The OECD forecasts a further reduction in the economic growth of (Turkey-author) for 2019 to minus 1.8 percent.” So far, the trend is as follows: industrial production, for example, in January 2019 fell by 7.3% against January last year.

Among the chronic illnesses of the Turkish economy is a deficit of the balance of payments, which the government traditionally tries to compensate with foreign loans and foreign investment – these primarily provided economic growth in previous years. Now this source seems nearly exhausted as investors worldwide are growing increasingly wary of developing markets. The position of Turkey is aggravated by the uncertainty of foreign capital about the independence of the Central Bank, its concerns about the unpredictability of the country’s policy and the adequacy of its economic course (first of all, its adherence to ambitious projects with questionable economic efficiency).

Also, potential investors are deterred by the strained relations between Ankara and Washington. For many, President Trump’s recent treat to “ruin” Turkey for its policy on Syrian Kurds and his recent decision to abolish customs preferences for a number of Turkish goods came as signaling the continuation of a trade war. Significantly, these statements were made after the Turkish leadership confirmed its determination to acquire Russian air defense systems, thereby making it clear that pursued a course towards independence in strategic decision-making.

For Turkey, the United States is a fairly important trading partner, which in 2018 accounted for almost five percent of Turkish exports ($ 8.3 billion) and more than five percent of imports ($ 12.3 billion).

The recession in the Turkish economy has a certain negative impact on Russian-Turkish economic results. Last year, Turkey became Russia’s sixth largest trading partner. In particular, it accounts for a considerable share of Russian exports of metals, grain and, most importantly, energy carriers (the second, after Germany, importer of oil in the world). In February, according to Gazprom, the export of Russian gas to non-CIS countries decreased by 13% in annual terms. The company said the main reasons behind the decrease were the warm weather in Europe and the crisis in Turkey.

The Russian economy has succeeded in adapting to the extensive sanction pressure from Washington and, it looks like the Trump administration has now chosen to “attack from the flank”, targeting one of Moscow’s major foreign economic partners. It would not be a mistake to assume that the ability of the Turkish leadership to resist pressure from its “strategic ally” and NATO partner in the near future will largely determine not only economic, but also political relations between Moscow and Ankara. 

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Ambiguity in European economic leadership

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Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.

 This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.

The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.

 Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.

 In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!

The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.

 After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).

 Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.

 For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.

The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.

We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.

Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.

For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.

As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP

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