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How China cornered the market for clean tech

Late last year in Beijing, officials from several of China’s technology, trade and defence agencies were called to a series of secret meetings with a single purpose: to respond to America’s sweeping restrictions on selling computer chips to Chinese companies.

In July, Beijing announced its response: it imposed restrictions on the exports of gallium and germanium, metals used in the production of a number of strategically important products, including electric vehicles, microchips and some military weapons systems.

“We had many options,” says one official directly involved in the talks. “This was not our most extreme move . . . it was a deterrent.”

To the outside world, this was a one-two punch from Beijing. First, it showed China controlled the supply chain for dozens of minerals classified in the US as critical to economic and national security. It also showed China was prepared to potentially use this as geopolitical leverage.

Matthew Funaiole, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think-tank, says the move was a “shot across the bow” which caught some in Washington off guard.

“Outside of technical circles and the defence industry, it [gallium] is not a critical mineral that people were aware of,” he says.

The episode has highlighted an inconvenient truth for the west: China is by far the lowest-cost and biggest supplier of many of the key building blocks for clean technologies. The two metals are among a series of products vital to the energy transition in which China dominates.

China is responsible for the production of about 90 per cent of the world’s rare earth elements, at least 80 per cent of all the stages of making solar panels and 60 per cent of wind turbines and electric-car batteries. In some of the materials used in batteries and more niche products, China’s market share is close to 100 per cent.

China’s cornering of the clean tech supply chain has drawn comparisons to the high level of influence that Saudi Arabia enjoys in the oil market. Just as petrochemical production provides an immovable strategic buffer for the Gulf state, China’s dominance over these clean energy sectors is adding to growing geopolitical competition and has the potential to complicate the world’s fight against global warming.

The stakes are incredibly high.

The rise and rise of China’s clean tech companies poses a massive competitive threat to western manufacturing industries, including legacy carmakers and energy giants. But in the context of a worsening technological cold war with the west, those capabilities could become a source of leverage for China.

“People are starting to realise that control of the supply chain is important, otherwise you have systemic risk because it’s easy for China to shut down supply,” says Ross Gregory, Seoul-based partner of consultancy New Electric Partners.

Western governments are now desperately attempting to catch up with China’s ascendance to the top of the world’s critical minerals and renewable energy industrial supply chains. US president Joe Biden and his counterparts in Europe have started deploying hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Analysts, however, diverge on how long it will take the west to extricate itself from Chinese control of large swaths of the clean tech supply chain — or if this can be achieved at all.

Most believe it will be impossible for Europe to meet its ambitious climate change goals without maintaining a very deep relationship with Beijing. Even the US — which boasts deeper pockets and stronger political support to decouple from China — will face a mammoth task in creating a new clean tech supply chain that excludes China.

“The US has got to go on a war footing to build up these industries to be able to compete,” says Neil Beveridge, a Hong Kong-based analyst who leads Bernstein’s energy research. “The reality is China is still the workshop of the world.”

Beijing’s supply chain stranglehold

In the middle of the vast industrial compound of Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi mine in southern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, scores of trucks wait to be loaded with two-tonne sacks of unrefined copper before making the 80km journey south to the Chinese border.

Over the next few years, this will become the world’s fourth-biggest mine for copper, a metal central to the energy transition. As with many other extractive projects around the world, everything that is dug up here will be sent to China for processing.

While many western governments are pushing to reduce their reliance on China, Jakob Stausholm, Rio Tinto’s chief executive, pointed out that part of the Anglo-Australian group’s success in recent decades was due to demand from China. “We work well with our Chinese customers because our Chinese customers, like us, think long term,” he said in an interview at Oyu Tolgoi in July.

Nikhil Bhandari, co-head of Goldman’s Asia-Pacific natural resources and clean tech research team, says China’s grip on raw materials is “more than it appears”. This is thanks to equity investments in overseas mining operations by Chinese companies such as metals group Huayou Cobalt, carmaker BYD and battery giant CATL. In lithium, for instance, China only has a small share in mining, yet by next year Chinese interests will control more of the resource than the country needs for domestic purposes.

And there is no sign that China’s interest in tying up resources is close to being quenched.

The country’s overseas metals and mining investments are on track to hit a record this year, according to data published last week by Fudan University in Shanghai. Spending in the first six months of 2023 hit $10bn, more than the total in 2022, and investments this year are likely to surpass the previous annual record of $17bn in 2018.

Experts point to less obvious parts of the supply chain, especially materials processing and refining, to highlight where the west faces its biggest challenge in competing with China.

For decades, developed economies shunned these sorts of industrial activities, content to offshore the environmental damage to the developing world where costs would also be lower.

China is the leading producer of at least one stage of the supply chain for 35 of the 54 mineral commodities that are considered critical to the US, according to an analysis by the US Department of the Interior and the US Geological Survey.

In some cases, China’s position appears insurmountable. China produces a “staggering” 98 per cent of the world’s supply of raw gallium, according to CSIS, despite the product’s US military applications, including in next-generation missile defence and radar systems.

In electric-car batteries, for example, China’s share of the raw materials they require is lower than 20 per cent but it holds a 90 per cent share of the market for processed versions of the same materials, according to Goldman Sachs.

The production of graphite, used in the anodes in the heart of a lithium-ion battery, is instructive. While China’s market share of graphite reserves is just over 20 per cent, its market share for graphite processing is nearly 70 per cent, according to Goldman. But the cheapest way of producing graphite uses hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic material that carries significant environmental risks, and another product for which China is the largest producer.

In several other important clean tech industries previously dominated by western companies, including wind turbines, China now enjoys a rock-solid position.

More than half of all new wind turbines installed this year will be in China, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, an industry lobby group. In the production of nacelles, which house the turbine’s power generation equipment, China has a market share of 60 per cent. It is currently building more than 60 new nacelle assembly facilities, adding to the 100 already in operation.

Further down the turbine supply chain, the GWEC data shows China has more than 70 per cent market share of many crucial components including castings, forgings, slewing bearings, towers and flanges. 

Lance Guo, an expert on Chinese politics and economy at the National University of Singapore, says the world has for decades been taken by surprise by how successful the Chinese system has been in concentrating resources to focus on major national projects.

“The rest of the world was not prepared for that,” he says. “If you work on a free market basis, you can’t move so fast.”

Ilaria Mazzocco, an expert on Chinese industrial policy with CSIS, says while the growth in many of the clean tech industries predates China’s leader Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, the focus on industrial policy, strategic industries and climate change has been “strengthened” under his administration.

She also points to a significant difference between how these industries have developed compared to the west: “China has been much more careful about promoting the ‘whole of supply chain’ development.”

Cut-throat competition

When Jorge Guajardo arrived in Beijing in 2007 as the new ambassador from Mexico, one of his key jobs was to convince Chinese companies to set up factories in his home country. Given Mexico’s existing landscape of low-cost car plants, China’s fledgling auto groups seemed the natural place to start.

But if he thought the task would be easy, a meeting with BYD, a little-known battery maker supplying Nokia and Motorola phones, proved otherwise. Founder Wang Chuanfu, who had just acquired a failing state-owned car business, cut short a discussion about American trade rules.

“The battery is about 50 per cent of the [cost of the] car and I’ll never do the battery outside of China,” Guajardo recalls him saying. “It was 2007, this made no sense.”

Looking back, Guajardo, who is now based in Washington DC, says the rejection from BYD boss Wang “makes perfect sense. There was a vision . . . he was just thinking ‘electric’.”

BYD’s plug-in hybrid Destroyer at a car show in May. The Chinese automotive group, the world’s second-biggest producer of batteries, is the beneficiary of generous government subsidies © Getty Images

Today BYD, which is backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is viewed by industry experts as emblematic of an existential challenge confronting legacy auto industries in Germany, France, the US and Japan. In the first half of the year the company sold 1.15mn vehicles in China, or more than one-third of total sales of plug-in hybrids and battery vehicles, according to data from Automobility, a Shanghai consultancy. BYD is also the world’s second-biggest producer of batteries, part of a vertically integrated business model which is the envy of Tesla and VW.

Alongside the world’s EV battery king, CATL, Wang’s company is also among the clearest examples of how private sector ingenuity has married with Beijing’s industrial policy to create dominant positions in renewable energy and EVs. 

CSIS, the US think-tank, estimates Beijing’s cumulative state spending on the EV sector is more than $125bn between 2009 to 2021.

Beijing was ruthless. Domestic industry was prioritised with heavy-handed local requirements, and from 2016 South Korea’s leading battery makers, LG, SK and Samsung, were cut off from accessing generous subsidies, setting up a boom in CATL and BYD’s battery production.

The advantages that China now boasts when it comes to manufacturing clean tech products are underpinned by massive economies of scale benefits. 

Goldman data suggests that China can build an EV factory in about a third of the time it takes in other countries while a battery factory in the US will cost nearly 80 per cent more than in China. Bernstein says the cost of some manufacturing in the US can be three times more than in China. This highlights how China’s rivals must grapple with not only limited access to resources and upfront technology costs, but also labour shortages, wage inflation and higher environmental standards.

It is a similar story in solar and wind. Buoyed by massive domestic demand, Chinese manufacturing of polysilicon and its processing results in costs that are two-thirds the price of a European-made product, the IEA says. Chinese wind turbines are half the price of western rivals, according to S&P data.

Across these industries, Mazzocco says it is important to credit the role of intense private sector competition. “It is something we miss from the outside: we think it’s just about the subsidies. But in reality, it’s also because [companies] have been able to overcome their competitors within China in an extremely cut-throat environment,” she says. “They are the best of the best at squeezing every cent out of their operations.”

Weapons or wildfires

As China’s clean tech industry expands, analysts note distinct echoes of the geopolitical and economic disruptions caused by years of cheap Chinese steel, cement and aluminium flooding international markets. Complaints over Chinese manufacturing have led to periods of toxic bilateral tensions and thorny World Trade Organization disputes.

Around €7bn worth of Chinese solar panels are currently sitting in European warehouses, for instance, as supply outpaces demand, according to Rystad Energy, a consultancy. The stockpile is nearly enough to power all the homes in London and Paris, combined, for a year.

And yet there is deeper fear: an over reliance on a China that appears increasingly willing to weaponise its dominance, just as it did for gallium.

Funaiole of CSIS says that while China’s control over some sectors “seems like an impossible problem” it will be possible for the US to reduce its exposure over time.

Workers install solar panels in Wuhan, China. Buoyed by massive domestic demand, Chinese manufacturing of polysilicon and its processing results in a product that is two-thirds the price of a European-made product © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“If you take it one by one, prioritise the ones that are more necessary for the defence industry . . . you can start to chip away at the vulnerability,” he says.

Gore at NUS cautions that Beijing, too, needs to be careful in weaponising its clean tech dominance because China still remains deeply reliant on the west for many high-tech products.

“This could come back to haunt China,” he warns.

Still, other experts believe that ultimately western policymakers will face a choice between the competing strategic priorities of trying to decouple from China to achieve their national security goals, or co-operating to achieve their climate and economic goals.

“On one hand, you really want to protect these industries [in the west]. On the other hand, you’ve got wildfires in the Mediterranean,” says Beveridge. “What do you do?”

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