“Lithium OPEC” and China-US Rivalry

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Although Latin America is a region far from China, it has turned into a close geography to Beijing with the opportunities brought by globalization and developments in technology. In particular, China, which has taken various initiatives such as the Belt-Road Project to become a global actor, is trying to expand its network of relations and the regions in which it operates in order to compete with the United States of America (USA). In this process, Latin America attracts the attention of China due to the increasing influence of the leftist ideology in the region, its rich underground resources and its presence in the close vicinity of the USA.

One of the issues that Beijing administration prioritizes while expanding its sphere of influence is to benefit from underground resources. At this point, Latin America comes to the fore with its great potential. Because Venezuela is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, Beijing has strengthened its economic and social relations with the Caracas administration; he even supported Maduro in the face of US attempts to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power. Among the reasons for Beijing to adopt this attitude are the underground riches of Venezuela, as well as the ideological affinity with Caracas and the anti-US sentiment.

While the election of names close to leftist ideology in Latin America expanded China’s sphere of influence; It restricts the movement of the USA. In the process of breaking the influence of the USA, left administrations in Latin America are not only getting closer to China; It also strengthens the relations among themselves. Thus, the states of the region are planning to create a more autonomous area in their foreign policies, to increase their gains through cooperation and to weaken the possibility of foreign actors to intervene in the region.

One of the latest examples of this is the relations shaped around lithium resources in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Mexico. Lithium is one of the important minerals used in battery production. The value and importance of lithium has increased as countries have recently focused on electric vehicle production. The price of lithium, which was 13 thousand 154 dollars per ton on August 31, 2021, increased to 59 thousand 928 dollars by August 31, 2022.[1]

According to the data of January 2022, the amount of lithium in the world is 89 million tons. 21 million tons in Bolivia, 19 million tons in Argentina, 9.8 million tons in Chile, 9.1 million tons in the USA, 7.3 million tons in Australia, 5.1 million tons in China, 3 million tons in Congo, 2.9 million tons in Canada, 2.7 million tons in Germany, 1.7 million tons in Mexico, 1.3 million tons in Czechia, 1.2 million tons in Serbia and Russia has 1 million tons of lithium. The remaining lithium reserves are scattered in various countries. In 2021, Australia came to the fore with 55 thousand tons of lithium production, Chile 26 thousand tons, China 14 thousand tons and Argentina has 6,2 thousand tons of lithium production.[2] Although Australia produces close to 50% of its production, 60% of its lithium processing capacity in global markets is under the control of China.[3]

When the aforementioned data are examined, it is seen that Latin American countries stand out in terms of lithium resources. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle Countries”, are the leading states in this regard. Considering China’s lithium processing capacity, the potential of cooperation between the four countries is better understood. In this context, the governments of Buenos Aires, La Paz and Santiago have taken an important step together with Mexico City.

As it will be remembered, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced in May 2022 that they are trying to establish an organization similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) together with Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The purpose of the organization that is planned to be established is to prevent price fluctuations in the lithium market, to ensure stability in production, to accelerate economic development by using the demand for lithium, and to bring people closer by sharing information and technology in Latin America.[4]

As can be expected, the decision taken by the four countries pleased China. Because there are left-wing governments in these countries, and especially Bolivia and Argentina are close to Beijing. It should also be reminded that; one of the reasons for the coup in Bolivia in 2019 was the administration’s agreement with Beijing on lithium resources. On the other hand, in February 2022, Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding with China to be included in the Belt-Road Project. The fact that 40 million of the 89 million tons of lithium in the world is found only in these two countries and that China is the leader in processing lithium is an important detail that should not be ignored in the relations between the actors.

It is obvious that China will become an important actor in the new energy industry and market thanks to the relations it has established with the left administrations in Latin America and its lithium processing capacity. If the “Lithium OPEC” wishes to remain a regional organization, it can be said that the energy competition between the USA and China will increasingly continue in Latin America. However, if it is organized internationally, as can be seen in the OPEC example, the possibility of the USA not being included or not included in the “Lithium OPEC” may come to the fore, despite having lithium deposits and production capacity. At this point, it is highly likely that the “Lithium OPEC” will turn into an organization under the influence of China.

There are various obstacles in front of the “Lithium OPEC” turning into an effective actor in the world and being the main determinant. First of all, although the interest in lithium is increasing at the global level, it is not at the oil level. However, it is predicted that the interest in lithium in the world will intensify even more. In fact, the organization to be established is a preparation for this process.

Moreover, the states that will establish the “Lithium OPEC” will need to harmonize their production and industrial policies in order to determine a common policy. But Bolivia’s economic and technological infrastructure is quite weak. In addition, although the planned organization has about 50 million tons of lithium, its capacity to pressure other states on price is weak. Moreover, it can be argued that the Washington administration will oppose the organization’s decisions.[5]

In addition to all these, Latin American states may have to face foreign interventions and social events provoked from outside, due to their long-term influence of the USA. While this destabilizes countries; will deactivate the organization.

As a result, as various mines in the world increase in value, the policies developed by the states that own these resources to control the price are also on the agenda. As a matter of fact, the decisions taken on lithium are the most recent example of this. The fact that China is an influential actor in lithium and the left administrations in Latin American countries also add an anti-US and ideological meaning to the “Lithium OPEC”. However, if lithium replaces oil, US influence will weaken. In this context, China can transfer technology to countries in Latin America on lithium in order to minimize the gains of the USA. Because the strengthening of Latin American countries and increasing their capacities in various issues means that the influence of the USA will decrease.

[1] Nuran Erkul Kaya, “Lityumda Bir Yılda Yüzde 355 Artan Fiyatlar, Elektrikli Araçların Büyüme Hızını Yavaşlatabilir”, Anadolu Ajansı,, (Date of Accession: 28.11.2022).

[2] Brian W. Jaskula, “Lithium”, U.S. Geological Survey,, (Date of Accession: 28.11.2022), s. 100-101.

[3] Kaya, op. cit

[4] “Mexico Seeks Lithium Association with Argentina, Bolivia and Chile”, Reuters,, (Date of Accession: 28.11.2022).

[5] “Stabilizing Lithium Market”, Global Times,, (Date of Accession: 28.11.2022).

Dr. Emrah KAYA
ANKASAM Dış Politika Uzmanı Dr. Emrah Kaya, Akdeniz Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezundur. Yüksek lisans derecesini 2014 yılında Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde hazırladığı “Latin Amerika'da Sol Liderlerin Yükselişi ve Uluslararası Politikaya Etkisi: Venezuela-Bolivya Örneği” başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Kaya, doktora derecesini de 2022 yılında aynı üniversitede hazırladığı "Terörle Mücadelede Müzakere Yöntemi: ETA-FARC-LTTE-PKK" başlıklı teziyle elde etmiştir. İyi derecede İngilizce bilen Kaya'nın başlıca çalışma alanları; Orta Asya, Latin Amerika, terörizm ve barış süreçleridir.