China restricts exports of graphite as it escalates a global tech war

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China has unveiled plans to restrict exports of graphite — a mineral crucial to the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) — on national security grounds, the Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Customs said Friday.

The announcement comes just days after the United States imposed additional limits on the kinds of semiconductors that American companies can sell to Chinese firms.

“At the moment both China and Western countries are engaged in a tit for tat, highlighting how protectionist measures often spread. Newton’s third law that every action causes a reaction applies here, too,” said Stefan Legge, head of tax and trade policy research at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.

“At the same time, both sides of the dispute also realize how costly it is if geopolitics trumps economics,” he added.

China, which dominates the world’s production and processing of graphite, says export permits will be needed, starting in December, for synthetic graphite material — including high-purity, high-strength and high-density versions — as well as for natural flake graphite.

The Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, DC-based research organization, says carmakers are trying to lock in supplies of graphite from sources outside of China, as demand for EV batteries outpaces other uses for the material.

Global sales of EVs, including purely battery-powered vehicles and hybrids, are soaring, according to the International Energy Agency.

Sales exceeded 10 million units last year, up 55% from 2021, and are expected to rise to nearly 14 million vehicles this year, it projected.

According to the US Geological Survey, the market for graphite used in batteries has grown 250% globally since 2018. China was the world’s leading graphite producer last year, accounting for an estimated 65% of global production, it said.

Besides EVs, graphite is commonly used in the semiconductor, aerospace, chemical and steel industries.

The export curbs were announced as China faces pressure from multiple governments over its commercial and trade practices. For more than a year, it has been embroiled in a tech war with the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia over access to advanced chips and chipmaking equipment.

In July, Beijing imposed export restrictions on gallium and germanium, two minerals essential for making semiconductors. One month later, its overseas shipments of the materials fell to zero.

Ivan Lam, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Research, said China had previously imposed temporary export controls on graphite, with little industry impact, adding that the new rules were not a “complete ban.” Still, he predicts prices will go up.

“We believe that the average price of graphite will continue to rise in the future due to supply and demand imbalances, including Russia, which was one of the major graphite suppliers before the Russia-Ukraine war,” he said.

China has a massive hold on the worldwide supply chain of critical minerals needed to make EV batteries. It refines 60% of the world’s lithium and 80% of the cobalt, according to the US Department of Energy.

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