On China, Minerals, and Power Competition

As the world embarks on the energy transition, resource-rich African countries find themselves at the crossroads of geopolitical competition between China and Western countries led by the United States. But, with years of advance over the West in the extraction and supply and refining of minerals, China today is dominating the global supply chain.

In an effort to catch up, the United States and its allies are now using a number of restrictive policies (on national security grounds) and initiatives to counter China and curtail its domination as much as possible on the global supply chain.

The latest among these initiatives is the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) launched in June 2022, which aims “to ensure that critical minerals are produced, processed, and recycled in a manner that supports countries in realizing the full economic development potential of their mineral resources. The MSP will attract public and private investment, increase transparency, and promote high Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards throughout critical minerals supply chains.”

The initiative comes at a moment when African countries are seeking to move up the ladder of the global supply chain of these minerals and exporting countries seek to become refiners and battery makers. So, given its rivalry with China, how does the United States intend to engage with Africa in the extractive sector with the MSP framework?

From an African perspective, the United States will need, as much as it can, to stay true to the words and goals of its MSP and not turn it into a geopolitical tool to counter China in Africa. Otherwise, MSP would, in turn, trample on the agency of African countries and approach them as pawns on a chessboard, which Africans resent.

Good governance in the mining sector should not be used as a strategic tool.

To reach its goal, the MSP needs to work on improving the governance of the mining sector of these countries. The MSP should not serve to promote exclusive rights or access to these minerals. The ability or willingness of China to work and adapt in these corrupt environments should not be interpreted as its inability to thrive in a corruption-free country. There have been numerous cases where Chinese companies won World Bank bids over Western companies in Africa. It would be a mistake to assume that good governance and transparency would drive out China. Over the years the Chinese have acquired the knowledge, improved their mining skills, and have larger financial capabilities and governance flexibility to outbid any Western companies in Africa.

There’s no zero-sum game between the United States and China over the extractive sector.

Placing African countries in a zero-sum game matrix, either China or the United States, and never the two together, will not improve the governance of the extractive sector in Africa.

Bad governance in the extractive industry is only a reflection of a broader governance issue in a country. Putting geopolitics rivalry in the mix is likely to further skew and divide the internal political environment of the country and create conditions for further instability. We could easily find ourselves in a context where autocratic regimes that guarantee the U.S. supply of strategic minerals will receive protection from the United States and its allies. And the opposite is also possible with China, although China does not actively interfere in the domestic politics of countries.

Unless the United States is coherent in its approach, MSP will not help improve the mining sector governance by compromising with regimes that fit their agenda or short-term goals. Rather, the United States should focus on the larger issue of governance and political stability and help African countries strengthen their legal frameworks and negotiation capabilities.

Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu

Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program