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Central Asia’s Rare Earths: Potential Fuel for Energy Transition

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If rare earth elements are the crude oil of the 21st century, then Central Asia and Mongolia may be the Saudi Arabias of these strategic minerals.

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai produced an agreement that aims to triple the use of renewable energy, double energy efficiency, and “speed up the transition to a cleaner and healthier economy” by 2030, so the world can meet its Paris Agreement goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This energy transition cannot be fueled by optimism and zeal alone. Rare earth elements (REEs) are required to fuel this transition and are vital for the growth of every green industry and emerging technology including, electric vehicles, robotics, drones, AI, and advanced computing.

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REEs will gain even greater prominence and value in the global economy and human life in the coming years and decades. Just as many laypeople follow the price of a barrel of crude oil, before long we will all might know the cost of a ton of dysprosium or scandium. As crude oil animated geopolitical and geoeconomic competition in the 20th century, the remainder of the 21st century will arguably be shaped by contests over REEs. Projects are afoot for mining strategic minerals from the ocean floor to the surface of the moon.

If REEs are the crude oil of the 21st century, then Central Asia and Mongolia may be the Saudi Arabias of these strategic minerals. The heart of the Eurasian landmass sandwiched between Russia, China, and the Indian subcontinent, comprises a population of approximately 80 million people, six countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), and combined is about half the size of Europe. It also sits on a veritable ocean of REEs according to the United States Geological Service.

Just like the Middle East, the region is subject to intense and divergent political pressures. Russia and China border the region, each exercising their influence at the other’s expense and eager to keep the West out. Afghanistan and Iran hem in the region to the south, while adjacent but politically slow and clumsy (and often culturally tone deaf) Europe, and strategically invisible India desperately seek their avenues into the region to gain access to business opportunities including cheap commodities. The United States is mostly driven by military considerations, such as the tragically ineffectual and prolonged war in Afghanistan. Washington is trying its best to show the flag, but slowly losing influence in the region.

Yet, the West is already taking action to enter the REE market. Kazakhstan, the largest producer of REEs in the region, confidently asserted it can provide “all the 30 critical raw materials the [European] bloc needs.” Kazakhstan is betting big on REEs, featuring them first and foremost at its annual Astana Financial Forum where it tries to woo investors.

During the forum, EU Ambassador to Kazakhstan Kestutis Jankauskas encouraged the EU-Kazakh REE strategy, noting “there are quite big possibilities to develop business in the area of green hydrogen, climate change… Some of this is driven by necessity because we need rare earth metals for the Green Deal. Kazakhstan needs technologies, while the EU needs alternative supply sources.” Kazakhstan’s REEs and already well-developed mining sector make them natural partners, creating a strong foundation for a strategic relationship between Astana and Brussels. This causes consternation in Moscow and Beijing, as China currently monopolizes REE refining, much to the frustration of the West.

Kazakhstan may be setting regional trends, but it is hardly alone. Mongolia, also heavily invested in mining and hemmed in by Russia and China, currently does not mine REEs but is invested in exporting them. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Mongolia in May, their talks emphasized “cooperation on the extraction and trade of minerals used in satellites, cell phones and other key technologies” – REEs. When Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai visited Washington in August and met with Vice President Kamala Harris, the Joint Statement on the Strategic Third Neighbor Partnership also indirectly pointed to REEs.

Uzbekistan, the most populous country in the region, is eager not to miss the opportunity that REEs present. The International Energy Agency has already identified Uzbekistan as vital for a green energy transition, with the value of its mineral resources estimated at over $5 trillion. Alouddin Komilov from Uzbekistan’s Center for Progressive Reforms pointed out that amidst the EU’s surge of interest in the region, REEs fill not just a vital global need, but a pathway to development.

Tiny Kyrgyzstan is so enthused with its own REE potential that it may have killed the goose before it laid its golden eggs, entering into a costly legal battle over the REE exporting mine Kutessay-II to nationalize it in 2014. Lawsuits continue nearly a decade later.

Even Tajikistan, a nearly failed state plagued by corruption, nepotism, and drug trafficking problems, believes that Central Asia’s REEs could be its salvation. In July, Ilkhom Oymuhammadzoda, head of its Main Directorate of Geology, announced a great effort being put into REEs. This follows the 2014 announcement of a decade-long survey to locate REE deposits.

In the region, only opaque Turkmenistan seems to be spurring REE development.

Despite the obvious potential and unmet demand, Central Asia’s REEs are understudied by Western actors and investors. While a 2022 report by the Caspian Policy Center and a 2023 report by the German Federal Institute for Geoscience and Natural Resources focus on these issues, the rapidly evolving nature of the subject makes them in need of an update.

The latest expansive study, a just-released 2023 report by the Energy, Growth, and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center, which I co-authored, addresses both internal and external factors of the need for this vital sector’s development. With my co-authors Dr. Ariel Cohen and Wesley Hill, we find that Central Asia’s REE potential is ripe for an influx of public and private investment – but this investment has to be carefully structured to successfully begin production, and avoid economic capture by China.

Central Asia may become a new hub of REE extraction. Right now, the United States is not paying due attention while Russia and China are posed to pounce. If Washington and Brussels want to ensure that the terms of the green energy transition and the vital technologies of the 21st century aren’t dictated by Moscow or Beijing, European and American involvement and investment in the region needs to surge, and quickly.

 

Source: The Diplomat

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