Lithium Deal Could Signal An End To The China v Australia Trade War

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Chinese demand for lithium and other energy metals to power its growing fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) is proving more powerful than its anger with Australia over disputed Covid-19 pandemic claims.

With the price of lithium almost doubling since the start of the year, a Chinese lithium chemical company has prepaid for future delivery of the metal from an Australian mining company.

Sichuan-based Yibin Tianyi earlier this week signed an “offtake and prepayment agreement” with Australia’s Pilbara Minerals for the provision of up to 40,000 tons a year of concentrated spodumene (lithium ore).

The deal has a modest value of just $15 million, but it could be one of several signs that the war of words between two natural trading partners is fading in its intensity.

Yibin Tianyi’s cash will help pay for an expansion of Pilbara’s operations, though lithium from the upgrade is not expected to be delivered to China until later this year.

The lithium deal follows an earlier transaction between an Australian and a Chinese company over the production of titanium minerals, mainly used to make paint, and zircon, which is mainly used in ceramics.

Thunderbird Is Go, With A Chinese Cash Boost

Yansteel, a subsidiary of Tangshan Yanshan Iron & Steel, last week agreed to pay $100 million for a 50% stake in Kimberley Mineral Sands, which is developing the Thunderbird project in the north of Western Australia.

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Australia’s Sheffield Resources owns the other half of Thunderbird, which is in the final stages of design and planning with an investment decision scheduled for later this year

Another hint, this time at a political level, that the frozen China-Australia relationship might be thawing is a decision by the Premier of South Australia, Steven Marshall, to accept a Chinese government invitation to formally open a controversial Chinese consulate in the state capital of Adelaide.

Marshall will be sharing the stage at the March 30 opening with China’s Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who has been a harsh critic of Australia after it led a campaign for an independent inquiry into the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the sometimes harsh criticism of each other, China and Australia remain major trading partners with a steady flow of goods and services, mainly minerals from Australia and manufactured goods from China.

The quarrel reached a peak last year when China refused to take delivery of some Australian shipments of coal and slapped punitive tariffs on Australian wine, barley and shellfish.

Fading Pain

Short-term pain for Australian exporters of those products has largely faded with new markets being found.

Some the barley earmarked for China has made its way to Mexico. Wine shipments to Britain are booming and coal, meant for China is being delivered to the Middle East and Pakistan—with commodity traders reportedly reloading and shipping it into China.

No winners are likely to emerge from the dispute, which is more about bruised Chinese pride and Australia’s dislike of China’s attempts to dictate terms of the relationship.

Economic rationalism and a sense that it’s time to find an exit appears to be topping current thinking on both sides, not to mention Chinese drinkers preferring Australian barley as the base for beer made by famous brewers such as Tsingtao.