Gabriel Lafitte is an Australian researcher and environmentalist. He is the author of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism at the Roof of the World, which details how Tibet is currently on the cusp of rapid industrialisation, as copper, gold, silver and other minerals, which are abundant in Tibet are being mined in large quantities for the first time.
Gabriel Lafitte spoke to us via email and video chat about many aspects of Tibet and mining there.
In the first part of our interview, we focus on China’s policies on minerals, including mining in Tibet.
Can you summarise what kind of mining is being done in Tibet currently?
China’s biggest state owned mining companies are rapidly scaling up their extraction from Tibet, chiefly of copper, gold and silver, which are found together, always close to the major rivers which are drunk daily by one billion people.
Geologists worked so hard locating the mineral wealth of Tibet, confirming what the world has known for thousands of years, that Tibet is rich in many minerals, also lead, zinc, molybdenum, asbestos, uranium, chromium, lithium and much more. Now have confirmed proven, extractable deposits of 80 million tons of copper, and at least 2000 tons of gold, at current prices they are worth close to one trillion dollars.
Yet it would take decades to extract all that copper, and even so, it will still do little to reduce China’s reliance on global imports. Decades ago China decided on a mature policy of integration with the world economy, selling manufactured goods and importing the raw materials. This policy has generated today’s prosperity, and a massive surplus, since the value of exports is so much greater than imports. Today’s China is relaxed, and confident that its role as the world’s factory, bringing raw materials from all over the world, is the cause of today’s well-off society. China has decisively rejected narrow resource nationalism, or self-sufficiency, because the benefits of trade are so great.
Even if all of the minerals of Tibet were extracted quickly, for use in the factories of the lowland, China would still have to import most of its copper, gold and silver, and other metals.
So it is possible for China to have all the minerals it needs for industry without mining in Tibet.
Well, up until now that has definitely been the case because in fact, really, up until know, apart from the small scaling mining that I talk about, that might have been environmentally destructive, in terms of the actual amounts of gold recovered, probably not very productive.
So up until now, China’s emergence as the world’s factory has been done entirely by importing whatever was needed and no one really felt that was a problem, even though now China has to import two-thirds to three-quarters of its oil and two-thirds of its copper and so on, no one really seems to feel that that is a problem, which is a sign of China’s maturity and integration into the global economy. I think that ordinary people will certainly feel that it is just common sense.
It’d be a bit more secure to have a domestic source but importing is so easy, especially at a time when most of industry is still on the coast. But that, of course, is changing. Not only hasShanghai deindustrialised and transcended the industrial phase, and move onto to a creative service economy, but a lot of the heavy industry is moving further and further inland, closer to Tibet, and that will change things for the future.
Some of my conclusions are what one reviewer called “counter-intuitive”.
They’re not what people expected.
Yes I found that as well.
Well, maybe it’s because I’m an Australian. Because Australia’s prosperity has been so totally dependent on integrating our economy with China. And as an Australian, I’m just so aware of the extraordinary quantities of iron ore, and wheat, and wool, and cotton, andnow gas, so many other things that have made Australia’s fortune, all of which are exported China. And again, that’s a secure supply. There’s no reason, I think, for China to feel any sense of anxiety or this is somehow a security issue or dependence. I mean it really seems to me a sign of China’s maturity that this now exists.
What about rare earths [ed. rare earth metals, which are needed to manufacture technologies such as smart phones]? I’ve heard that most of the rare earths are in China.
Ah. Rare earths is something exceptional. The subtitle of my book is China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World. And that concept of resource nationalism, of wanting to make some political use of resources you’ve got, is, I think, something of a two-edged situation for China. Because if some of the countries which currently supply China, in, say, Africa, or Latin America, do decide to emphasize resource nationalism, then there could be supply problems. There could be some difficulties. But if, on the other hand, China also feels tempted to exercise its opportunity to exploit resource nationalism by monopolizing the world production of rare earths nearly all of which come from Baotou, in Nei Mongu [inner Mongolia], then certainly, the Japanese, people who’ve been cut out from the rare earths supply, then that does create tensions, that’s true. And I think that there might be a certain ambivalence whether it’s suitable to use resource nationalism as a tool of diplomacy or economic competition, because China also stands to lose if other countries become resource nationalist.
Gabriel Lafitte’s book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, is out now.
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[Image credit: Erik Törner］