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[Editorial] Graphite this time

China unveils plans to restrict exports of a crucial material to EV batteries

Oct. 24, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

China on Friday unveiled plans to restrict exports of graphite, a material crucial to the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.

The plans follow Beijing's export curbs that took effect from Aug. 1 on gallium and germanium products used to manufacture advanced semiconductors.

According to the notice jointly issued by China’s Ministry of Commerce and General Administration of Customs, the graphite export controls are for the sake of the national security and interests and effective from Dec. 1. Not only synthetic and natural graphite, but also anodes -- which are the negatively charged portion of batteries -- are to be controlled.

Customs clearance will likely be delayed or exports wholly restricted. Two months ago, when China began to enforce export controls on gallium and germanium, its export of the two critical chip making materials dropped to zero.

China says the graphite export restriction does not target specific countries, but it is hard to take it at face value. The graphite export controls cannot but affect South Korea, China’s rival in the global market of second batteries.

The announcement came not long after the US moved to tighten curbs on exports of artificial intelligence chips to China. China's graphite export restrictions are a tit-for-tat move. It is not hard to guess Beijing's intention to control exports of graphite and anodes. It apparently intends to strike a blow to the US strategy of developing its domestic EV and battery industries in cooperation with South Korea and other allies. Damage to South Korean battery companies is inevitable.

China holds 70 percent of the global graphite refinery market. South Korea imported 98 percent of natural graphite and 94 percent of synthetic graphite from China from January to September. Despite an excessively high reliance on China, the temptation of cheap prices was too strong to resist.

South Korea sees no immediate problems in China's export controls as it has about 45 days of graphite inventory. The government and companies can figure out measures in the meantime. However, a mid-and long-term alternative to the diversification of suppliers of graphite and other core minerals is nowhere to be seen. Securing alternative suppliers is said to take at least a year.

The first thing to do for domestic battery companies is to secure as much inventory as possible before Dec. 1 when the export controls take effect. Then they should try to minimize the effect of the export curbs jointly with the government through discussions with Beijing while rushing to diversify overseas supply chain.

The government has designated five rare-earth elements -- cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, dysprosium, terbium -- along with lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese as 10 strategically important minerals. Reliance on import of those minerals ranges from 70 to 100 percent. China is weaponizing natural resources more and more conspicuously in this situation. This doesn't just inflict economic damage on South Korea -- its national growth and security are also threatened in the long term.

When problems such as export curbs on diesel exhaust fluid, gallium and germanium broke out, South Korea managed to overcome crisis somehow. But it may encounter a situation where it cannot overcome with quick fixes any more. Long-term as well as short-term measures must be urgently needed.

There is no guarantee China took the last export controls with graphite. The possibility of China weaponizing rare earth metals and core minerals any time cannot be overlooked. Taking this opportunity, South Korea needs to adjust its strategies to secure stable supply of core minerals used in major industries.

Above all, it is important to dampen the effect of export restrictions. Though Korea has few buried resources, raising domestic mineral refining capacity can help weaken damage to some extent.

The government must strengthen support for private-sector efforts to fulfill deals on minerals in third countries as early as possible, such as Posco's memorandum of understanding with Black Rock, an Australian mining company, to be supplied with natural graphite to be mined in Tanzania.

Also, it must utilize the US-led Materials Security Partnership actively, at the same time strengthening communication with China.