Japan goes prospecting for rare metals

Posted in Japan | 21-Jun-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - In addition to oil, natural gas and uranium, resource-poor Japan is now revving up its drive to secure rare metals, which are used in a wide range of high-technology products, including digital home appliances, high-grade steel, and hybrid and fuel-cell cars.

Highly alarmed by soaring prices on robust global demand and amid increased export restrictions by some producing countries, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) mapped out a new comprehensive strategy recently for ensuring stable supplies of rare metals, especially tungsten, cobalt, vanadium, molybdenum, indium, platinum and rare earth, in the medium and long terms.

For Japan, a major importer of these rare metals, ensuring their stable supplies has emerged as an all-important policy task to maintain and strengthen the international competitiveness of its industries.

The strategy calls for, among other things, beefing up state stockpiles of rare metals in terms of both volume and scope, promoting the recycling of scraps, developing alternative materials, extending official development assistance (ODA) for the development of new mines, and pumping public funds into efforts to help domestic private firms land mining interests abroad. The strategy also calls for strengthened relations with producing countries through such foreign-policy tools as free-trade agreements (FTAs).

Meanwhile, private Japanese companies are aggressively looking for chances to step up their rare-metal exploration projects. Last week, for example, major trading house Sumitomo Corp announced that it has invested about 3 billion yen (US$24.4 million) to acquire an 8.7% stake in Augusta Resource Corp, a Canadian metals-exploration company.

Augusta is carrying out a feasibility study at the Rosemont copper project about 50 kilometers southeast of Tucson, Arizona, which holds deposits of copper, silver and molybdenum - a rare metal used mainly as an additive to create specialty steel products. Sumitomo said in a statement that it aims to build up a long-term partnership with Augusta for the development of the Rosemont project.

Global rush amid rising prices
Global competition is intensifying for non-ferrous metals, including copper and lead, as well as for such energy resources as oil, natural gas and uranium. Prices have risen sharply in recent years on increased global demand, led by red-hot consumption in China. The surge in prices in international markets has been fueled by the inflow of speculative funds.

Japan has even seen a bizarre series of theft cases recently in which copper and electric wires, bronze fire bells, faucets, manhole covers and incense burners have been stolen from streets, rice fields and cemeteries across the country. It is widely suspected that high international metal prices and special procurement demand in China ahead of next year's Summer Olympic Games in Beijing are behind the thefts.

Spikes in prices for non-ferrous metals are not limited to such base metals as copper, lead and aluminum. Prices for most rare metals, which are widely used as raw materials for high-tech products, have also jumped several-fold in recent years.

Indium, for example, was sold at prices 8.5 times as high this March as in March 2002. Indium is used in such products as LCD (liquid crystal display) televisions. Prices for platinum, which is used as a catalyst in fuel cells and catalytic converters for automobiles, also increased 2.4-fold during the same five-year period. Prices for tungsten, which is used to make light-bulb filaments and increase the hardness and strength of steel, rose 4.7-fold during the same period. Among other rare metals, prices for nickel, cobalt, vanadium, molybdenum and manganese also surged 7.1-fold, 4.4-fold, 6.2-fold, 6.0-fold and 2.1-fold, respectively.

Changes in supply-demand structure
Lying behind the sharp surge in prices for non-ferrous metals, including rare metals, are changes in the supply-demand structure for them. New major consuming nations have emerged, most notably China and India, the world's two most populous countries, whose economies are growing at a breakneck pace.

On the supply side, meanwhile, a small number of powerful resource majors, such as Anglo American, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, now dominate the global markets for non-ferrous metals, wielding great influence over supplies and prices. In the 1990s, for example, seven resource majors accounted for only about 30% of global copper-ore production. But the percentage has increased to 50%.

The world has also seen a rising tide of "resource nationalism" in many producing countries recently amid steep rises in prices for various resources, from oil, natural gas and uranium to non-ferrous metals.

Despite being a major producer of non-ferrous metals, China has become a net importer of some metals, such as lead, zinc and nickel, as the country gobbles them up to feed its runaway economy. To meet sharply growing demand at home, China has taken export-restraint measures, such as lowered tax rebates, increased export taxes and stricter export quotas, for some rare metals, including tungsten and rare earth, since last year.

China has also made aggressive forays into various parts of the world in pursuit of resource interests. China's particular focus on Africa has drawn global attention recently. China is increasingly reliant on the continent for raw materials. Africa supplies one-third of China's oil, with Angola, Sudan and Nigeria being major suppliers. China also gets bauxite from Guinea, copper from Zambia, uranium from Namibia and rare metals from Congo.

Japan's heavy dependence on imports
The output of rare metals is small and production areas are disproportionately located. China produces about 90% of tungsten and rare earth. China is also the world’s largest producer of indium, accounting for more than 30% of global total. South Africa produces about 80% of platinum.

Japan is a major consumer of rare metals. The world's second-biggest economy accounts for about 60% of global indium consumption. Japan's share of global consumption is high for other rare metals as well, at 20% for platinum, 14% for nickel and tungsten, 25% for cobalt, 17% for molybdenum, 11% for vanadium and 24% for rare earth. Japan imports almost all of the rare metals it consumes. China supplies 90% of Japan's rare-earth imports, 79% of tungsten imports and 70% of indium imports. South Africa supplies 81% of Japan's platinum imports and 49% of vanadium imports. Japan purchases 44% of its nickel imports from Indonesia, 30% of cobalt imports from Finland and 45% of molybdenum imports from Chile.

Raising state reserves of rare metals
Increasingly concerned about global supply shortages, METI compiled a comprehensive strategy this month for ensuring stable supplies of rare metals in the medium and long terms. It was the result of the first review of a government policy on rare metals in more than 20 years.

The new strategy calls for, among other things, increased state reserves of some rare metals. There has been increasing pressure on the government from domestic industries to boost such stockpiles.

In fiscal 1983, Japan began stockpiling seven types of rare metals - nickel, tungsten, cobalt, molybdenum, manganese, vanadium and chromium. As of the end of March this year, Japan had reserves of these rare metals equivalent to 34.8 days of domestic demand - 24.4-day stocks controlled by the state and 10.4-day reserves kept by the private sector - compared with the target of 60 days. The government-affiliated Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC) manages the state-controlled reserves at a warehouse in Takahagi, Ibaraki prefecture.

Under the new strategy, the government will increase the state reserves of vanadium, tungsten, cobalt and molybdenum and will also consider expanding the scope of state stockpiles to include indium, platinum and rare earth.

The strategy also calls for promoting the recycling of scraps and developing alternative materials. METI specifically plans to commission domestic non-ferrous-metal makers and universities this summer to develop alternative materials in hopes of putting them into practical use in five years' time.

Resource diplomacy and public funds
The new strategy urges the government to step up its diplomacy aimed at securing new supply sources and also dissuading producing nations from taking export-restrictive measures. Tokyo believes that export restrictions should be introduced only as an exception under the international trade rules set by the World Trade Organization.

The strategy calls for increased Japanese support for mining development in foreign countries through the extension of ODA money. It also includes pumping public funds into efforts to help domestic private firms acquire mining interests abroad. The envisaged public funds will come from such government-affiliated organizations as JOGMEC, Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI).

Even before the strategy was adopted, Japan had already begun to place a greater emphasis on securing non-ferrous metals, including rare metals, as well as crude oil, natural gas and uranium.

In February, for example, Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar visited Tokyo and agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promote cooperation between the two countries on the development of mineral resources, including rare metals. To implement the agreement, the two countries are expected soon to launch a joint committee of government officials and private-sector people. Mongolia is rich in a variety of minerals, especially coal and copper, although these remain largely unexploited.

During a tour of resource-rich Central Asia by the METI chief, Akira Amari, at the end of April, JOGMEC signed cooperation agreements with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for the development of mineral resources, including rare metals.

FTA as a foreign policy tool
Japan has already placed priority on concluding FTAs with resource-rich countries, as well as neighboring Asian countries, as a way of beefing up relations with them and thereby ensuring stable supplies of oil, natural gas and other resources.

On Monday, Japan signed an FTA with Brunei, an oil-and-gas-rich member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The signing was made during a meeting in Tokyo between Abe and Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah.

Brunei is the seventh country with which Japan has signed an FTA, after Singapore, Mexico, Malaysia, the Philippines, Chile and Thailand. The FTAs with Singapore, Mexico and Malaysia have already taken effect. Japan is also expected to ink an FTA with Indonesia in August. Japan is also negotiating FTAs with the 10-member ASEAN as a whole, the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Australia and Switzerland. Japan is also eyeing South Africa as a potential FTA partner.

The Japan-Brunei FTA, which is expected to take effect this year, will eliminate import tariffs on 99.9% of bilateral trade within 10 years. In addition to eliminating tariffs, the FTA is aimed at ensuring stable supplies of oil and natural gas to Japan from the Southeast Asian country. Japan imports almost all of its oil and gas.

Japan exported 11.5 billion yen's worth of products to Brunei in 2005, with automobiles and auto parts accounting for 71% of the total. Meanwhile, Japan imported 252.5 billion yen's worth from Brunei, more than 99% of which were liquefied natural gas and crude oil.

The Japan-Brunei FTA incorporates an energy clause, under which Brunei will notify Japan in advance of any emergency measures that would restrict exports of natural gas and crude oil. Brunei will also hold discussions on any such measures with Japan and respect existing export contracts. For Japan, getting such a clause concerning resource supplies included in FTAs is a top-priority goal in negotiating such trade deals with resource-rich countries.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economics. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected] .