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U.S. delegation attends mining conference in South Africa, signaling increased interest in African minerals and combating China’s dominance.

A U.S. delegation to a major mining conference in South Africa last week included officials from the Treasury and State departments and the chair of the nation’s official export credit agency.

Mining and building infrastructure on the continent hasn’t traditionally been a U.S. government priority. But that is changing now that decarbonization of the economy has taken a front seat and Washington has grown worried about China’s dominance of supply chains for strategic materials, including cobalt and copper, used in electric vehicles and renewable energy systems powered by wind turbines and solar panels.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented, the level of delegation,” Thomas Sheehy, a fellow with the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank, told a local television outlet at the mining gathering. “That’s a realization of the importance of African mining. It’s been building for a couple years but has really been supercharged by the Biden administration’s energy agenda.”

An area in Central Africa known as the Copperbelt is of particular interest to U.S. officials. The area straddles the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia and holds more than a 10th of the known copper deposits in the earth’s crust. The DRC produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt, which is generally a byproduct of copper mining.

Most of that cobalt is exported to China, which is by far the world’s biggest importer of copper ores and concentrates. So it’s no surprise that China has been investing heavily in the African mining and transportation sector.

Chinese entities own all or part of most of the producing mines in the DRC, according to the U.S. Institute for Peace. China provided interest-free financing for a railway built in the 1970s linking Zambia’s Copperbelt to a port in Tanzania on Africa’s east coast. China this week announced a plan to revitalize that railway, providing direct competition to a U.S.-backed rail corridor from the mineral-rich area to the other side of the continent.

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