CRITICAL MINERALSAs Competition with China Heats Up, Japan Turns to Africa for Critical Minerals

By Julian Ryall

Published 17 August 2023

Demand for such minerals is expected to grow sharply in the coming years. There are, however, supply constraints, as only a limited number of countries produce them. Tokyo has signed agreements with a number of African countries as competition with China for key raw materials and minerals heats up.

Japan’s Economy and Industry Minister Nishimura Yasutoshi has concluded a series of agreements with a number of African states to explore and extract minerals that are critical to the Asian nation’s high-tech industry. 

In the Zambian capital of Lusaka, Nishimura inked a deal on August 11 aimed at greater cooperation in mining for minerals used in electric vehicles and other technologies.

Under the agreement, Japanese companies will receive government support to expand operations into Zambia to reinforce the strategic supply chain.  

Japan has committed to deploying satellites to conduct surveys for areas that are likely to have deposits of copper, cobalt and nickel, key components in batteries for electric vehicles.

Demand for such minerals is expected to grow sharply in the coming years. There are, however, supply constraints, as only a limited number of countries produce them, and Japan is facing tough competition to acquire these resources.

Reaction to Chinese Advances
Nishimura was able to conclude similar agreements on exploration and supply networks with the governments of Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while he also visited Angola and Mozambique to lay the groundwork for similar trade deals.  

The Japanese government has been prodded into action by the aggressive expansion efforts of China in Africa.

China already has some of the world’s most extensive deposits of rare earth minerals, but is already feeding growing domestic demand. To meet anticipated future demand, state-run Chinese firms are busily acquiring overseas mining interests, with the Democratic Republic of Congo a particular target. 

On August 1, restrictions on exports from China of gallium and germanium went into effect in a move that analysts say is retaliation for the US and Japan imposing a ban on sales of high-end semiconductors to China.  

Gallium and germanium are both used in the manufacture of semiconductors, solar cells and LEDs.

These are two of the many types of rare earth minerals that come primarily from China, although they can also be mined in other countries, of course,” said Morinosuke Kawaguchi, a technology strategist and consultant who was previously a lecturer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. 

China has become the world’s largest producer because it was able to extract these minerals relatively cheaply and supply them to the world market, meaning that mines elsewhere were shut down,” he told DW.  

Now that China has restricted exports, prices for the resources are once again rising and shuttered mines are now economically viable, he said.  

Large deposits of mineral resources have already been confirmed in many African countries, which is why Japan — which has virtually none of these resources — has stepped in,” he added.  

Japan’s Priority on Capacity-Building 
As an added sweetener to the deals, and more that are likely to be coming, Japan is likely to continue to be generous with its aid budget, said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.  

Through the years, Japan has been very good at capacity building in developing nations, of providing technical support, funding for infrastructure projects, creating skilled labor forces and so on,” he said.

China has been less good in these areas. And Tokyo is hoping that its partners will choose Japanese quality over Chinese quantity.” 

Countries in Africa and the island states of the Pacific are aware of Beijing’s use of assistance with conditions and are seeking alternative sources of development aid, Hinata-Yamaguchi said.  

Japan’s approach has been to work with local governments and people as partners,” he said. “China has acted questionably in many of its trade agreements, and that has made the local people very distrustful. Japan is consciously taking a very different road and is making sure that capacity-building, training and education are up front.”  

Securing access to key minerals has been high up on the agenda of Japan and Western countries in recent years.

It was a key topic at the G7 energy and environment ministers meeting in Japan in April, where they agreed to boost cooperation in the area.

Just a Stop-Gap Arrangement Between Japan and Africa?
Kawaguchi noted that Japan’s investment in African resources could be something of a stop-gap arrangement.  

A lot of money and effort is going into exploring beneath the seabed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” he said. “And that is paying off as test excavations at depths of 3,000 meters and more have come back with incredibly high amounts of minerals.” 

Japan controls an EEZ of some 4.47 million square kilometers of the Pacific. 

It’s a vast area and the tests show that the resources there are huge, but the bottleneck at the moment is bringing them up from the seabed economically,” he said.

But as soon as the technology is available then it can be exploited. The future of Japanese technology is under our own seas.” 

Julian Ryall is a Japan-based freelance journalist. This article was edited by Srinivas Mazumdaru, and is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).