China Is Unlikely to Tap into Afghanistan’s Resources to Strengthen Its Position in the Global Lithium Market - Global Trade Magazine
  September 28th, 2021 | Written by

China Is Unlikely to Tap into Afghanistan’s Resources to Strengthen Its Position in the Global Lithium Market

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  • Chile constituted the largest lithium carbonate supplier to China, with a 74% share of total imports in 2020.
  • The Belt and Road Initiative should enable China to strengthen its leading position in the global lithium export market.
  • South Korea and Japan were the main importers of Chinese lithium.

IndexBox has just published a new report: ‘China – Lithium Carbonate – Market Analysis, Forecast, Size, Trends and Insights’. Here is a summary of the report’s key findings.

Although China is the second-largest importer of lithium carbonate in the world, it dominates globally in exports for lithium oxide and lithium hydroxide. With moderate lithium deposits, the country will need to find ways to expand its resource reserves to support the rapid development of its electric car and electronics industries. It is widely viewed that China will construct lithium mining facilities in Afghanistan, but this is very unlikely in the near future due to the difficult military and political situation there.

Key Trends and Insights

China remains the second-largest importer of lithium carbonate worldwide but dominates globally in lithium oxide and hydroxide exports. According to IndexBox, in 2020, China’s market share consisted of 57K tonnes or 67% of worldwide exports. South Korea and Japan were the main importers of Chinese lithium.

Lithium production in China grew from 10.8K tonnes of lithium content in 2019 to 14K tonnes in 2020. According to USGS estimates, China stands in fourth place globally for lithium reserves (1.5M tonnes of lithium content), behind Chile (9.2M tonnes), Australia (4.7M tonnes) and Argentina (1.9 M tonnes).

The rapidly developing electric car and electronics industries in China will require enlarging their resource reserves to meet production needs. Alternative methods to increase their mineral reserves could include expanding domestic excavation, building mining facilities abroad or expanding lithium imports.

Recently in China, there have been discussions about creating a mining facility in Afghanistan for rare earth metals to provide one means of expanding their resource reserves. Implementation of such a project in the near future is highly unlikely, mostly due to the difficult military and political situation in the country. Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, one of the world’s largest copper deposits, serves as a precedent, where China invested in mining operations. In 2008, the Chinese Company MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals (MJAM) received a permit to rent and develop the ore, but to this day they haven’t begun to extract nor smelt the ore. Currently, the project remains within an exploration phase. The main reasons for the facility’s stalled construction are threats of armed conflict in Afghanistan and a shortage of necessary resources such as coal and phosphate.

There are no reliable sources of data about Afghanistan’s lithium deposits. According to estimates from the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, there are 1.4M metric tonnes of rare earth elements in the country. There is no open-source information detailing whether those minerals are accessible for the extraction or whether they are contaminated by radioactive elements. At the moment, there are no active mining operations for lithium in Afghanistan. The mining industry is significantly under-developed there, and due to a low GDP, the only method to stimulate growth is foreign investment.

Currently, the Belt and Road Initiative should enable China to strengthen its leading position in the global lithium export market. The initiative’s main goal is to construct a unified large market among countries in Asia Pacific, Africa as well as Central and Eastern Europe. It should help China increase exports of lithium as well as increase imports of crude ores when necessary. Within the Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested in transport and logistics infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan.

Lithium Carbonate Imports into China

In value terms, lithium carbonate imports expanded sharply by +8.5% to $261M (IndexBox estimates) in 2020. In physical terms, lithium carbonate imports into China reached 50K last year.

Chile (37K tonnes) constituted the largest lithium carbonate supplier to China, with a 74% share of total imports in 2020. Moreover, lithium carbonate imports from Chile exceeded the figures recorded by the second-largest supplier, Argentina (13K tonnes), threefold.

The average lithium carbonate import price stood at $5,208 per tonne in 2020, falling by -36.5% against the previous year. Average prices varied noticeably amongst the major supplying countries. In 2020, the country with the highest price was Argentina ($5,922 per tonne), while the price for Chile stood at $4,889 per tonne. In 2020, the most notable rate of growth in terms of prices was attained by Argentina.

Lithium Oxide and Hydroxide Exports from China

In value terms, South Korea ($357M) and Japan ($313M) constituted the largest markets for lithium oxide and hydroxide exported from China worldwide.

Lithium oxide and hydroxide exports from China skyrocketed to 57K tonnes in 2020, picking up by +16% against the previous year. In value terms, lithium oxide and hydroxide exports declined slightly to $688M (IndexBox estimates) in 2020.

South Korea (29K tonnes) and Japan (26K tonnes) were the main destinations of lithium oxide and hydroxide exports from China. In 2020, the most notable growth rate regarding the volume of shipments, amongst the main countries of destination, was attained by South Korea (+68% y-o-y).

The average lithium oxide and hydroxide export price stood at $12,120 per tonne in 2020, which is down by -15.2% against the previous year. Average prices varied noticeably for the major overseas markets. In 2020, the country with the highest price was South Korea ($12,491 per tonne), while the average price for exports to Japan totaled $11,968 per tonne. In 2020, the most notable growth rate in terms of prices was recorded for supplies to Japan.

Source: IndexBox Platform