18 Jun 2024, 08:50

Chinese Premier Li targets clean energy in Australia visit

 SYDNEY, June 18, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Premier Li Qiang toured a Chinese-controlled lithium refiner in Perth on Tuesday, a sign of his country's vast appetite for Australian "critical minerals" required for clean energy technologies.

Li ended his four-day visit to Australia with a tour of the low-carbon energy industry in resource-rich Western Australia.

His first stop was Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia, a 51-percent Chinese-owned venture comprising a mine for hard rock lithium ore, and a lithium refinery.

Along with at least a dozen other officials, China's second most powerful man donned a white helmet during a rainy visit to the facility south of Perth.

The Chinese premier will also view a private research facility for clean energy-produced "green hydrogen" -- touted as a fuel of the future to power heavy-duty items such as trucks and blast furnaces.

Australia extracts 52 percent of the world's lithium, the vast majority of it exported as an ore to China for eventual refining and use in batteries, notably in China's world-dominant electric vehicle industry.

But despite being a huge Australian customer, China's involvement in the country's critical mineral industry is sensitive because of its dominance of global supply chains.

Australia has only recently begun refining lithium rather than exporting the ore.

And the government has announced a strategic plan to develop new supply chains with friendly countries for critical minerals such as lithium, nickel and so-called rare earths.

Earlier this year, the government ordered five China-linked shareholders to sell off a combined 10 percent stake in Northern Minerals, a producer of the rare earth dysprosium.

Such foreign ownership was against Australia's "national interests", Treasurer Jim Chalmers said.

About 99 percent of the world's dysprosium -- used in high-performance magnets -- is currently produced in China.

China has invested in critical minerals in Latin America, Africa and Australia over the past 10-20 years, said Marina Zhang, associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney's Australia-China Relations Institute.

Developing supply chains independent of China is "fine and dandy" but unlikely to be achieved even in the short to medium term, she said.

"We are facing a very time-pressing issue that is fighting against climate change -- so that issue should be at the centre of the discourse," Zhang said.

"But unfortunately the Western allies are taking the approach that China's dominance across the supply chains of critical minerals is imposing national security threats," she said.

China's narrative, however, was that it was investing and making a contribution to sustainability and environmental protection, the analyst said.