Friday 18th October 2019

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Posts tagged ‘russia’

The end is still nigh

August 21st, 2019

So James Rickards found time to write another doomsday survival guide

by Greg Klein

So James Rickards found time to write another doomsday survival guide

 

St. John wrote just one Book of the Apocalypse but James Rickards has finished six so far. His most recent, Aftermath: Seven Secrets of Wealth Preservation in the Coming Chaos, offers a warning and advice for the economic end times that he considers imminent. Exactly how and when that’ll happen, he doesn’t say. But this book continues his exposé of the world’s monetary system: “the real system as distinct from the one elites would have you believe exists.”

What Aftermath offers in addition to Rickards’ trademark pitch for gold are some very general tips on investment and asset allocation—so general, however, that they hardly merit a book. This volume’s strength comes in its essays, discussions and digressions on a variety of (usually related) topics.

Among the most important is public debt, primarily that of the U.S. Long unsustainable, the burden groans under a 300% increase over 20 years, currently fuelled by Donald Trump’s revival of trillion-dollar deficits. He gets away with it, though: “Entitlements and defense both get to gorge at the trough, so there’s no dissension in D.C. The only loser is the country.”

So James Rickards found time to write another doomsday survival guide

Among the less-acknowledged causes of American debt are student loans, “now more than 50 percent larger than the junk mortgage pile in the last financial crisis” and growing. Also growing are the default rates, already more than three times that of mortgages at the height of the 2007-to-2008 crisis.

Debt hardly distinguishes the U.S. from other countries, and the entire world remains at risk from contagious sovereign defaults in emerging countries. Rickards’ at-risk list might surprise some readers.

China is a Ponzi like Madoff. China has trillions of dollars in external dollar-denominated debt, wealth management products, bank loans, intercompany loans, and other financially engineered arrangements that can never be repaid. If everyone with a claim on China wanted her money back, China couldn’t come close to satisfying even a small portion of those seeking liquidity.

…. Apart from borrowed money, wasted infrastructure investment, and fictitious accounting, there is no Chinese economic growth miracle.

While the U.S. denominates its debt in U.S.-printable U.S. dollars, money-creation won’t work forever. The only thing supporting fiat currency is confidence, and that can’t last, Rickards argues. History, psychology and common sense demonstrate that “confidence in money is fragile, easily lost, and impossible to regain.”

Spreading to all reserve currencies, “this loss of confidence will be exacerbated by malicious efforts on the part of Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and others to abandon dollars entirely and to bypass the U.S.-dollar payments system.”

This accumulation of risk factors is entirely new, and outside the experience of any trader or quant.

Contagion demonstrates one danger of interconnected systems, but exceedingly complex technology and financial instruments intensify the peril. Flash crashes only hint at the possibilities, Rickards suggests. “Markets now confront a lethal brew of passivity, product proliferation, automation, and hypersynchronous behavioral responses. This accumulation of risk factors is entirely new, and outside the experience of any trader or quant.”

Getting back to currencies, the author presents intriguing evidence that a gold standard is actually in place. Using research from D.H. Bauer, Rickards says that special drawing rights, the International Monetary Fund reserve asset that’s speculated to replace the U.S. dollar as the world currency, have been pegged to gold. Bauer’s data shows yellow metal hovering around SDR900, fluctuating no more than SDR50 in either direction.

 An important pillar of a global monetary reset seems already in place.

Rickards blames China. “Even if the peg is nonsustainable in the long run, it’s a clear short-run signal that China is betting on the SDR and gold, not the yuan or the dollar. An important pillar of a global monetary reset seems already in place.”

Sometimes digressive in his subject matter, Rickards’ other topics include an interesting perspective on the Uranium One purchase. He served on a CIA advisory board as manoeuvres by Frank Giustra and Bill and Hillary Clinton led to the company’s takeover by Rosatom. “It’s as if the deal were being handled inside the intelligence community on a special track, precisely to avoid the analysis our group was formed to provide.”

Another digression looks at the disturbing prevalence of surveillance, data mining and choice architecture to monitor and manipulate citizens. “Neofascist” China plans 600 million surveillance cameras, digital facial and gait recognition software and internet monitoring to reward its people for good deeds or penalize them for offences ranging from smoking in public to tweeting verboten thoughts.

Most plans for catastrophe will fall apart in the first five minutes of being needed.

He also criticizes some alternative end time strategies. “Most plans for catastrophe will fall apart in the first five minutes of being needed.” Survivalists holed up in bunkers will face “pop-up militias,” he warns. The ultra-rich, with plans to flee to their luxurious New Zealand estates, haven’t considered how they’ll get to the airport, how they’ll refuel their private planes en route, whether they’ll get past the NZ military on arrival, or how they’ll ensure the loyalty of their private security guards. The catastrophe will be worse than they imagine.

Even so, too many of his digressions are unnecessary, such as his tedious account of being locked out of his car, an unnecessarily long rebuttal of behavioural psychology and the rather weird discussion of finite size involving King Kong, Godzilla, skyscrapers and whales.

“Investors should not focus on the cause of the collapse (it’s a long list and the timing is uncertain),” he notes. Certainly the book’s rambling nature belies any sense of urgency. He even hopes to finish another volume before the catastrophe finally hits. That would be his seventh on the subject since 2012.

Visual Capitalist looks at palladium—the secret weapon in fighting pollution

August 20th, 2019

by Nicholas LePan | posted with permission of Visual Capitalist | August 20, 2019

Despite the growing hype around electric vehicles, conventional gas-powered vehicles are expected to be on the road well into the future.

As a result, exhaust systems will continue to be a critical tool in reducing harmful air pollution.

The power of palladium

This infographic comes to us from North American Palladium TSX:PDL, and it shows the unique properties of the precious metal and how it’s used in catalytic converters around the world.

In fact, palladium enables car manufacturers to meet stricter emission standards, making it a secret weapon for fighting pollution going forward.

 

Visual Capitalist looks at palladium the secret weapon in fighting pollution

 

The world is in critical need of palladium today. It’s the crucial metal in reducing harmful emissions from gas-powered vehicles—as environmental standards tighten, cars are using more and more palladium, straining global supplies.

What is palladium?

Palladium is one of six platinum group metals which share similar chemical, physical and structural features. Palladium has many uses, but the majority of global consumption comes from the autocatalyst industry.

In 2018, total gross demand for the metal was 10,121 million ounces (Moz), of which 8,655 Moz went to autocatalysts. These were the leading regions by demand:

  • North America: 2,041 Moz

  • Europe: 1,883 Moz

  • China: 2,117 Moz

  • Japan: 859 Moz

  • Rest of the world: 1,755 Moz

Catalytic converters: palladium versus platinum

The combustion of gasoline creates three primary pollutants: hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Catalytic converters work to transform these poisonous and often dangerous chemicals into safer compounds.

In order to control emissions, countries around the world have come up with strict emissions standards that auto manufacturers must meet, but these are far from the reality of how much pollution is emitted by drivers every day.

Since no one drives in a straight line or in perfect conditions, stricter emissions testing is coming into effect. Known as Real Driving Emissions, these tests reveal that palladium performs much better than platinum for typical driving uses.

In addition, the revelation of the Volkswagen emission scandal (known as Dieselgate) further undermines platinum use in vehicles. As a result, diesel engines are being phased out in favour of gas-powered vehicles that use palladium.

Where does palladium come from?

If the world is using all this palladium, where is it coming from?

Approximately 90% of the world’s palladium production comes as a byproduct of mining other metals, with the remaining 10% coming from primary production.

In 2018, there was a total of 6.88 million ounces of mine supply primarily coming from Russia and South Africa. Conflicts with or within these jurisdictions present significant risks to the global supply chain. There are a few North American jurisdictions, such as Ontario and Montana, which present an opportunity for more stable primary production of palladium.

Long road to extinction

The current price of palladium is driven by fundamental supply and demand issues, not investor speculation. Between 2012 and 2018, an accumulated deficit of five million ounces placed pressure on readily available supplies of above-ground palladium.

Vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) will continue to dominate the roads well into the future. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, it will not be until 2040 that ICE vehicles will dip below 50% of new car sales, in favour of plug-in and hybrid vehicles. Stricter emissions standards will further bolster palladium demand.

The world needs stable and steady supplies of palladium today, and well into the future.

Posted with permission of Visual Capitalist.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announces a strategy to ensure critical minerals supply

July 16th, 2019

…Read more

Washington continues critical inquiries into rare earths and uranium supply chains

July 15th, 2019

by Greg Klein | July 15, 2019

While somewhat relaxing its concern about uranium, the U.S. appears increasingly worried about rare earths supply. A Reuters exclusive says Washington has begun an inventory to itemize domestic RE projects.

Washington continues critical inquiries into rare earths and uranium supply chains

With an inventory of domestic RE projects
already underway, the U.S. called for a study
of uranium supply chain potential.

“The Pentagon wants miners to describe plans to develop U.S. rare earths mines and processing facilities, and asked manufacturers to detail their needs for the minerals, according to the document, which is dated June 27,” the news agency reported. “Responses are required by July 31, a short time frame that underscores the Pentagon’s urgency.”

The request mentions the possibility of investment by the military, Reuters added.

The move marks another development in American plans to reduce the country’s dependency on critical minerals from economic and geopolitical rivals. Last month the U.S. announced a new critical minerals strategy calling for closer co-operation with allies. Out of an official list of 35 critical minerals, rare earths repeatedly come up for special attention. China supplies 80% of American demand for this economic and military essential, with more imports coming indirectly from China. Compounding the conundrum is the fact that America’s only rare earths mine, Mountain Pass in California, ships its entire output to China.

Last month Reuters stated that U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed their officials “to develop a joint action plan on critical minerals collaboration.”

But if heightened American urgency about some critical minerals looks positive for Canadian projects, so does a reduction in urgency about U.S. uranium supplies.

Cameco Corp TSX:CCO expressed itself pleased with Trump’s decision not to introduce new trade restrictions on uranium imports.

The president disagreed with a July 12 report stating that the country’s heavy reliance on imports threaten to impair U.S. national security. The secretary of commerce found the country’s foreign dependency now accounts for 93% of American uranium supply, up from 85.8% in 2009. The secretary attributed the number to “increased production by foreign state-owned enterprises, which have distorted global prices and made it more difficult for domestic mines to compete,” the White House stated.

But, citing significant concerns nonetheless, Trump called for the creation of a nuclear fuel working group “to develop recommendations for reviving and expanding domestic nuclear fuel production” within 90 days.

Cameco president/CEO Tim Gitzel said the company “also sees tremendous value in increasing co-operation between the United States and Canada to address critical mineral issues and strengthen security of supply on a North American, rather than strictly national, basis.”

Trump and Trudeau’s commitment to a joint action plan “is an excellent initiative, and we see uranium being a key component of that strategy,” Gitzel added.

The U.S. report results from a petition by Energy Fuels TSX:EFR and Ur-Energy TSX:URE, who together took credit for over half of U.S. uranium production in 2017. Yet their estimates for last year showed total domestic production supplied only about 2% of U.S. demand.

The companies called for a 25% domestic quota on uranium purchases in the U.S., suggesting state-owned companies in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan keep prices below a profitable threshold for American producers. The Eurasian trio provided about one-third of U.S. demand in 2017.

“If Russia and its allies take control of this critical fuel, the threat to U.S. national and energy security would be incalculable,” the companies maintained.

Crediting Vivian Krause, Alberta calls inquiry into foreign-funded anti-oilsands campaign

July 4th, 2019

by Greg Klein | July 4, 2019

Forsaking a slingshot to work “from my dining room table, using Google on my own nickel,” independent researcher Vivian Krause took on an extremely well-funded Goliath. Now her findings and the questions they raise should come to light in a formal inquiry. Alberta’s United Conservative Party government, elected last April, has ordered an examination of what Premier Jason Kenney said “amounts to a premeditated, internationally planned and financed operation to put Alberta energy out of business.”

Crediting Vivian Krause, Alberta calls inquiry into foreign-funded anti-oilsands campaign

After years of Quixotic efforts, Vivian Krause’s
research comes to prominence.

At risk for foreign-funded Canadian activist groups will be their eligibility for government grants or charitable status. But their credibility also faces challenges. Kenney directed the commission to determine whether foreign groups “provide financial assistance to a Canadian organization which has disseminated incomplete, misleading or false information about the Alberta oil and gas industry.”

Kenney questioned activists’ focus on Alberta while doing “little or nothing” about American oil production doubling over the last decade and global production rising from 90 million to 100 million barrels per day during the same period.

“We’ve seen huge increases in production and consumption from OPEC countries, from the Russian autocracy, from the Venezuelan dictatorship and even from our neighbours to the south but almost all of this political pressure [targets] this liberal democracy with the highest human rights, labour and environmental standards. And we want to know why, who and how much. We want to know what exactly lies behind this campaign to defame and landlock Canadian energy.”

Kenney blamed the campaign for the loss of tens of thousands of Albertan jobs, thousands of business closures, negative economic growth and a massive increase in public debt.

Headed by forensic accountant Steve Allan, the commission will interview witnesses as well as review existing info and conduct further research. A public hearing may follow. Backed by a $2.5-million budget, the commission must deliver an interim report by January 31 and a final report with recommendations by July 2, 2020.

The premier emphasized the inquiry comprises one aspect “of a comprehensive plan to fight back against those seeking to hurt our prosperity and kill our jobs while applying a hypocritical double standard to other energy producers.” His government also plans an “energy war room” to counter disinformation, legal action against bills C-48 and C-69, and the creation of a coalition of provincial and territorial governments, first nations and business groups to encourage resource development.

Crediting Vivian Krause, Alberta calls inquiry into foreign-funded anti-oilsands campaign

Along with energy minister Sonya Savage,
Kenney announces the inquiry on July 4.
(Photo: Government of Alberta)

Kenney praised Krause’s “valiant research” in tracing over half a billion dollars from American foundations to Canadian activists. He also noted U.S. and NATO evidence that Russia provided money and used social media tactics to encourage opposition to North American and European oil and gas projects.

On the same day as the Alberta announcement, the Calgary Herald reported a recent speech in which Krause accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of preventing the Canada Revenue Agency from auditing politically active charities and then having retroactively changed legislation to allow political activism. One week after she testified before a House of Commons committee on the subject, she said, the CRA deleted 14 years of tax records from its online database, leaving only the last five years on the Web.

According to the Herald, Krause also alleged that the CRA had been concerned about an approximately $400,000 severance payment from the World Wildlife Fund to Gerald Butts when he left the charity to become Trudeau’s principal secretary.

Exactly what power Alberta might have to counter anti-oilsands funding remains to be seen. But “sunlight makes the best disinfectant,” Kenney said. Additionally, Krause’s years of research now gain considerable attention as the country faces a federal election.

Read more about Vivian Krause.

U.S. critical minerals strategy includes Canada and other allies

June 5th, 2019

by Greg Klein | June 5, 2019

The country’s tariff tactics might present an image of Fortress America battling its adversaries, but a new critical minerals strategy advocates greater co-operation between the U.S. and its friends. The manifestation of Washington’s growing concern about securing resources and building supply chains, a federal report released June 4 announces six calls to action, 24 goals and 61 recommendations accompanied by timelines for accomplishment.

The U.S. includes Canada and other allies in its critical minerals strategy

Clearly, the Donald Trump administration recognizes the problem of relying on potentially unreliable sources, especially when they’re economic and geopolitical rivals: “If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.”

Rare earths provide an especially stark example of the problem, the report emphasizes. “The REE industry has experienced downsizing, business failure, and relocation in all phases of the supply chain, including mining, separation, metal reduction, alloying and downstream manufacturing of advanced technology products such as high performance rare earth permanent magnets.”

The report, A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, follows a number of American initiatives including the formal classification of 35 critical minerals and a Secretary of Defense study released last September.

For 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the U.S. imports over 50% of its supply. For 14 of them, imports account for 100% of supply, creating “a strategic vulnerability for both our economy and our military with respect to adverse foreign government actions, natural disasters, and other events that could disrupt supply.”

If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.

Apart from finding new deposits, the report calls for specific measures to encourage R&D, new supply chains, additional and publicly available exploration data, land access and permitting, a workforce with appropriate skills and expertise, as well as international trade and co-operation.

On the latter topic, the report notes significant American reliance on Canada and Mexico for many essentials. “Working with them to develop their critical mineral deposits can help improve the security of U.S. supply.”

Washington’s agenda also calls for expanded collaboration with Canada, Australia, the EU, Japan and South Korea on a range of issues, from finding and developing resources to creating supply chains.

Although the U.S. began addressing the issue early in Trump’s administration, the report’s timing coincides with fears that another Chinese rare earths embargo could happen imminently. The U.S. relies on China directly for 80% of its imports, while much of the remainder comes from China indirectly. America’s sole REE mine, Mountain Pass in California, exports all its production to China.

That leaves Western Australian miner Lynas Corp as the only major producer outside China that is, as CEO/managing director Amanda Lacaze stated, “focused on rest-of-the-world markets, that is non-Chinese markets.” Although her company faces tremendous challenges meeting Malaysian government demands for its processing facility in that country, the government has made mildly conciliatory statements in advance of a June 28 meeting with Lynas.

Update: Following a June 20, 2019, meeting between Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the two leaders “instructed officials to develop a joint action plan on critical minerals collaboration,” according to Reuters.

A Capitol idea

May 7th, 2019

This U.S. bipartisan bill aims to reduce America’s critical minerals dependency

 

This won’t be the first time Washington has seen such a proposal. Announced last week, the American Mineral Security Act encourages the development of domestic resources and supply chains to produce minerals considered essential to the country’s well-being. But the chief backer, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, acknowledges having introduced similar standalone legislation previously, as well as addressing the topic in a previous energy bill.

A U.S. bipartisan bill would reduce America’s critical minerals dependency

This time, however, the proposal takes place amid growing concern. In late 2017, following a U.S. Geological Survey report that provided the first comprehensive review of the subject since 1973, President Donald Trump called for a “federal strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals.” In early 2018 the U.S. Department of the Interior formally classified 35 minerals as critical. A September 2018 report responded to the presidential order, urging programs to address supply chain challenges that leave the U.S. relying heavily on countries like Russia and especially China.

Even so, Murkowski and the other three senators think Washington needs a little push.

“I greatly appreciate the administration’s actions to address this issue but congress needs to complement them with legislation,” she said. “Our bill takes steps that are long overdue to reverse our damaging foreign dependence and position ourselves to compete in growth industries like electric vehicles and energy storage.”

The senators referred to USGS data from 2018 showing 48 minerals for which their country imported at least 50% of supply. Foreign dependency accounted for 100% of 18 of them, including rare earths, graphite and indium.  

Focusing on energy minerals, Simon Moores of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence lauded the bipartisan group for addressing “a global battery arms race that is intensifying.

“Lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are the key enablers of the lithium-ion battery and, in turn, the lithium-ion battery is the key enabler of the energy storage revolution. Globally they are facing a wall of demand, especially from electric vehicles. Yet the U.S. has been a bystander in building a domestic supply chain capacity.

“Right now, the U.S. produces 1% of global lithium supply and only 7% of refined lithium chemical supply, while China produces 51%. For cobalt, the U.S. has zero mining capacity and zero chemicals capacity whilst China controls 80% of this [at] second stage.

These supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow. The lithium-ion battery is to the 21st century what the oil barrel was to the 20th century.—Simon Moores
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence

“Graphite is the most extreme example with no flake graphite mining and anode production compared to China’s 51% and 100% of the world’s total, respectively. And it’s a similar story with nickel—under 1% mined in the U.S. and zero capacity for nickel sulfate.

“These supply chains are the oil pipelines of tomorrow,” Moores emphasized. “The lithium-ion battery is to the 21st century what the oil barrel was to the 20th century.”

Looking at another critical mineral, the White House has until mid-July to respond to a U.S. Department of Commerce report on the effects of uranium imports to American national security. According to the USGS, the fuel provides 20% of the country’s electricity but the U.S. relies on imports for over 95% of supply.

A recent book by Ned Mamula and Ann Bridges points to rare earths as the “poster child for U.S. critical mineral vulnerability.” In Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence, the authors say REs remain “essential for military and civilian use, for the production of high-performance permanent magnets, GPS guidance systems, satellite imaging and night vision equipment, cellphones, iPads, flat screens, MRIs and electric toothbrushes, sunglasses, and a myriad of other technology products. Since they offer that extra boost to so many new technologies, these rare earth metals rival energy in importance to our 21st century lifestyle.”

Among the proposed act’s provisions are:

  • an updated list of critical minerals every three years

  • nationwide resource assessments for every critical mineral

  • “practical, common-sense” reforms to reduce permitting delays

  • R&D into recycling, replacing and processing critical minerals

  • a study of the country’s minerals workforce by the U.S. Secretary of Labor, National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation

The senators made their announcement at Benchmark Minerals Summit 2019, a private event for industry and U.S. government representatives. In a February presentation to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources chaired by Murkowski, Moores issued a “red alert on the lithium-ion battery supply chain and the raw materials of lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite.”

Read more about U.S. efforts to secure critical minerals here and here.

Deep thoughts from B.C.’s energy and mines minister

April 12th, 2019

by Greg Klein | April 12, 2019

Proving they could sink lower than anyone else, Russians spent 24 years drilling their world-record 12,261-metre Kola Superdeep Bore Hole. But northeastern British Columbia’s oil patch seems to have reached something like 25 times as far. And in doing so, they must be employing super-durable materials impervious to intense heat and pressure but unknown to the outside world.

Deep thoughts from B.C.’s energy and mines minister

A reference work for B.C. cabinet ministers?

Or so you might think on reading a comment by B.C.’s minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, Michelle Mungall.

Discussing the natural gas industry, she told Black Press legislative correspondent Tom Fletcher, “In B.C. we’re drilling about 300 kilometres below the surface.” That would mean reaching about 5% of the distance to the planet’s hot, liquid inner core and well within temperatures that would melt any metal known to mankind.

“Wildly inaccurate,” Fletcher responded. “In fact, the gas and petroleum liquids-rich Montney shale formation that runs under Fort St. John, Dawson Creek and into Alberta is from two to four kilometres deep, similar to the Marcellus shale in the U.S.”

But if Mungall knows something that isn’t common knowledge, numerous possibilities arise, and not just in mining and geothermal energy. If drilling’s possible at such fathomless depths, why not tunneling and why not continue right through the globe to the Southern Hemisphere? That might open up trade links to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile borehole champion Russia, always vain about its accomplishments and now along with China officially considered a security threat to Canada, no doubt will be watching closely for any credible signs of one-upmanship in a downwards direction.

‘The Asian century’

April 4th, 2019

East has surpassed West, whether the West knows it or not, says Peter Frankopan

by Greg Klein

East has surpassed West, whether we know it or not, says Peter Frankopan

“Silk roads” can refer to the process of connecting people and cultures
through trade, according to Peter Frankopan’s recently published book.

 

Less than two years ago tensions along an especially sensitive border area sparked fighting between Chinese and Indian troops. Outside Asia, who knew? “As most of the world focused on the Twitter account of the US president and the circus surrounding Brexit, the threat of the two most populous countries on earth going to war was not just a possibility, it looked like becoming a fact,” writes Peter Frankopan. An uneasy truce eventually stalled hostilities but the West’s ignorance of the wider world remains. That’s both symptom and cause of the West’s decline, the author says.

The decisions being made in today’s world that really matter are not being made in Paris, London, Berlin or Rome—as they were a hundred years ago—but in Beijing and Moscow, in Tehran and Riyadh, in Delhi and Islamabad, in Kabul and in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, in Ankara, Damascus and Jerusalem. The world’s past has been shaped by what happens along the Silk Roads; so too will its future.—Peter Frankopan

Relatively few Westerners realize the extent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Actually a complex suite of alliances concerning resources, infrastructure, trade, security and even culture, the BRI forms just part of an Asian awakening that’s shifting the planet’s centre of importance while strengthening Eastern influence beyond Asia and Africa to make inroads into Europe, the Americas, the Arctic, cyberspace and outer space.

That’s the message of historian Frankopan’s latest book, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. While present and future aren’t normally the precinct of historians, it was historical perspective that brought Frankopan to the topic. In context, Western global supremacy has been a recent, short-lived development.

Since announcing the BRI in 2013, China has promised nearly $1 trillion, mostly in loans, for about 1,000 projects, Frankopan reports. That money could “multiply several times over, to create an interlinked world of train lines, highways, deep-water ports and airports that will enable trade links to grow ever stronger and faster.”

That would enhance China’s access to, and control over, resources ranging from oil and gas to mines and farmland; provide markets for Chinese exports including surplus steel, cement and metals, as well as manufactured goods; create projects for Chinese contractors; secure foreign ports and other strategic commercial and military locations; and build closer foreign alliances for geopolitical as well as economic benefits.

Backed by Chinese money and local sovereign debt, Chinese companies have pushed roads, railways, power plants, grids and pipelines through Africa and Asia at a much faster rate than ever seen through Western aid. Of course that can put the supposed beneficiaries at the mercy of their Chinese creditors.

East has surpassed West, whether we know it or not, says Peter Frankopan

In 2011, for example, China forgave neighbouring Tajikistan’s infrastructure-related debt in exchange for several hundred square kilometres of territory. A $7-billion rail line in Laos represents over 60% of the country’s GDP. A rail-building boom in Angola left citizens with a per capita debt to China of $754 out of a per capita income of $6,200. In 2017 a Chinese company got a 99-year lease in lieu of debt on the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, a strategic site for both commercial and military reasons. Other ports in Maldives, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Djibouti could face a similar fate.

Even so, something like 85% of BRI projects “have proceeded without difficulty,” Frankopan states. China conducts many of its most opportunistic acquisitions openly, like buying a controlling interest in Piraeus, the Athenian port since antiquity. Other seaport purchases have taken place in Spain, Italy and Belgium.

Strategic ports and an alliance with Pakistan help position China in the Indian Ocean, while China continues to expand its South China Sea presence by building artificial islands for military bases. This isn’t just “the crossroads of the global economy” but a ploy to extend military power thousands of miles farther, according to a U.S. Navy admiral. China’s ambitions continue in the disputed East China Sea, location of the 2010 Senkaku conflict, in which China’s rare earths tactics demonstrated yet another weapon in the country’s arsenal.

As an economic powerhouse as well as a “geopolitical alternative to the US,” China can profit from American sanctions on countries like Iran. Russia too challenges U.S. policies towards countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, while the latter shows its willingness to trade with Iran and buy arms from Moscow.

Military co-operation can create unlikely allies. Last summer, in Russian’s largest war games since 1981, Beijing contributed 30 fighter jets and helicopters along with more than 3,000 troops. Included in the exercises were simulated nuclear attacks.

While futurologists and networking pioneers often talk about how the exciting world of artificial intelligence, Big Earth Data and machine learning promise to change the way we live, work and think, few ever ask where the materials on which the digital new world [depends] come from—or what happens if supply either dries up or is used as a commercial or a political weapon by those who have a near-monopoly on global supply.—Peter Frankopan

Even India, America’s strongest Asian ally and the Asian country most wary of Chinese expansion, stands to undermine U.S. influence with proposed transportation connections and free trade with Iran and Afghanistan.

Yet obvious perils weaken any notion of a united Asia working harmoniously towards a common goal. Russian-Chinese military co-operation doesn’t preclude Moscow stationing its 29th Army 3rd Missile Brigade, with nuclear missile capabilities, near the Chinese border.

Time will tell whether other countries can overcome the Eurasian chaos that inspired this maxim of Canadian miners: “Never invest in a country with a name ending in ‘stan’.”

Then there’s extremist Islam. Uighurs from western China have fought in Syria for the Islamic State in numbers estimated “from several thousand to many times that number.” China risks wider Muslim anger by running a gulag archipelago for Muslims. The country’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region hosts “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Oddly enough for someone who knocks Western insularity, Frankopan seems to share the current preoccupation with the U.S. president. Among Frankopan’s criticisms of the West is its supposed opposition to immigration, even though that’s a marginal position within liberal countries but official policy in most of the East.

Nor does Frankopan mention the weird ideological zealotry that threatens to destabilize if not destroy the West from within.

Still, history’s greatest value might be perspective on the present. This historian’s view of the present and future can help Westerners understand their not-so-esteemed status in the Asian century.

Got the minerals?

March 4th, 2019

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

by Greg Klein

“The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths.”

Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 implied threat became all too real eight years later in the Senkaku aftermath, when RE dependency put Japan and the West at China’s mercy. But just as the United States overcame the 1973 OPEC embargo to become the world’s leading oil producer, that country can overcome its growing reliance on dodgy sources of mineral production and processing. So say authors Ned Mamula and Ann Bridges in Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence.

Their country’s problem isn’t geology but policies, the book argues. Repeatedly pointing to Canada and Australia as role models, the authors say their own country’s mining potential can restore mining self-sufficiency, or at least minimize a crippling dependency.

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

Indeed, the mighty nation has a mighty problem with minerals: Imports supply many critical minerals and metals in their entirety, with heavy reliance on Russia and especially China, “countries we consider at best our competitors, and at worst our adversaries.”

Rare earths stand out as the “poster child for U.S. critical mineral vulnerability.” As the authors note, REs remain “essential for military and civilian use, for the production of high-performance permanent magnets, GPS guidance systems, satellite imaging and night vision equipment, cellphones, iPads, flat screens, MRIs and electric toothbrushes, sunglasses, and a myriad of other technology products. Since they offer that extra boost to so many new technologies, these rare earth metals rival energy in importance to our 21st century lifestyle.”

Industrial countries not only surrendered rare earths mining and processing to China, but gave up technological secrets too. That happened when China forced RE-dependent manufacturers to move their operations to China. After Apple transplanted some of its manufacturing to that country, China copied and reproduced the company’s products, at times outselling the iPhone with knock-offs.

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

Other intellectual property faces threats. “U.S. companies—Intematix, GE (Healthcare/MRI Division), Ford (Starter Motor Division), and Battery 1,2,3—have all added manufacturing capacity in China, and so has Japan’s Showa Denko, Santoku, and scores of other global electronics companies.”

RE dominance has also allowed China to lead the world in technology for electric vehicles, renewable energy and next-generation nuclear power. And America relies on its rival for defence: “Most of the U.S.’ advanced weapon systems procurement is 100% dependent on China for advanced metallurgical materials.”

Foreign dependency includes tantalum, “critical to the economy and national defense,” gallium, cobalt, uranium and the list goes on.

According to a just-published report from the U.S. Geological Survey, “in 2018, imports made up more than half of U.S apparent consumption for 48 non-fuel mineral commodities, and the U.S. was 100% net import-reliant for 18 of those.

“For 2018, critical minerals comprised 14 of the 18 mineral commodities with 100% net import reliance and 15 additional critical mineral commodities had a net import reliance greater than 50% of apparent consumption. The largest number of non-fuel mineral commodities were supplied to the U.S. from China, followed by Canada.”

The takeover of former TSX listing Uranium One by Russia’s state-owned Rosatom brings threats worse than most observers realized, the authors say. The acquisition granted the Russian government membership in trade organizations and therefore valuable intel formerly available only through espionage. Uranium One also gives Russia the ability to curtail future American uranium production and use its influence on Kazakhstan, the world’s top producer, to flood the U.S. with cheaper, subsidized supply. That could put both U.S. production and processing out of business in a tactic reminiscent of China’s RE machinations.

China’s communist government uses a ‘debt trap’ model of economic development and finance which proffers substantial financing to developing countries in exchange for an encumbrance on their minerals resources and access to markets. This predatory model has been particularly effective in countries characterized by weak rule of law and authoritarian regimes.—Ned Mamula
and Ann Bridges

The Chinese “are now masters at securing and controlling core natural resources globally, especially minerals.” The country uses long-term contracts, equity investments and joint ventures, as well as the “debt trap” that provides “substantial financing to developing countries in exchange for an encumbrance on their minerals resources and access to markets. This predatory model has been particularly effective in countries characterized by weak rule of law and authoritarian regimes.”

The U.S., meanwhile, suffers not only from naivete and short-term thinking, but from self-induced challenges. The authors devote an entire chapter to Alaska’s Pebble project, maybe the world’s largest undeveloped copper-gold-molybdenum deposit. After more than two decades and over $150 million in spending, “Pebble is still more about politics than geology, much less mining the minerals known to exist there.”

The story stands out as “the classic cautionary tale in U.S. history of how a powerful federal regulatory agency can go rogue and impose its will on an unsuspecting permit applicant.”

Suggestions to alleviate these ills include streamlining the permitting process, among other recommendations to open up domestic production and re-build supply chains. One of the authors’ more interesting ideas concerns teaming up with environmental activists to promote ethical green supply chains that would shut out conflict minerals.

The book’s marred by repetition, sloppy English and some bold-faced typographical shouting. It’s also cluttered with a few questionable information sources and excerpts from a novel that would have been better left unwritten. The portrayal of Canada as a role model, moreover, might induce bitter laughter from this side of the border. But Groundbreaking offers a vital message to general readers. In doing so, it could reinforce a growing awareness in the U.S. about the need to minimize foreign dependency.

Read more about U.S. efforts to secure critical minerals here and here.