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The Influence of Mineral Resources on National Power and Global Dominance: A Comparative Analysis of the United States and China

Abstract

This article explores the critical role of mineral resources in determining the military and global power of nations, highlighting how mineral resources are fundamental for the production of defensive technologies and ammunition. Through historical and contemporary analysis, the article emphasizes the concept of mining power, that is, a nation’s ability to access reliable mineral resources, which serves as an indicator of its military capabilities. Historians, geologists, and government officials have long recognized the strategic importance of mineral resources, directly linking the availability of such resources to military power and a country’s role in the international context.

The article provides concrete examples of how China and the United States have used their mining power to consolidate their global influence. China, with its significant domestic mining production, extensive reserves, control over foreign production, and strategic imports, emerges as a mining superpower of the twenty-first century. The United States, on the other hand, demonstrated throughout the twentieth century how domestic and foreign mining production, combined with strategically oriented imports, conferred them dominance in the mining sector, despite the lack of strategic mineral reserves for much of the first half of the century.

Furthermore, the article discusses U.S. government policies aimed at supporting the domestic mining industry through tariff measures and financial assistance, emphasizing the importance of mineral resources not only for national security but also for economic development. Overall, the article highlights how control and access to mineral resources are key elements for military power and global influence, underscoring the interconnection between geopolitics, economy, and security.

Mineral resources play a fundamental role in the development of technologies for defense and ammunition, consequently defining a nation’s military power. They are vital elements in the production of defensive equipment such as submarines, bomber aircraft, missiles, and torpedoes. A country’s ability to access reliable mineral resources has a significant impact and can be considered an indication of its military capabilities. This ability is known as mining power. A nation with broad access to reliable mineral resources holds significant mining power. When a country combines this mining power with advanced military forces, it can aspire to become a dominant power in the international context, influencing global security policies. The relationship between a nation’s mineral resources and its power has been recognized by historians, geologists, and officials for a long period. In 1902, historian Brooks Adams noted how history had shown that mining production centers are often also the centers of empire. Franklin K. Lane, U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1916, elevated minerals to pillars of national power, a concept echoed by George Otis Smith, Director of the U.S. Geological Service, who stated that mineral wealth was the foundation of power. Even in 2023, David Humphreys noted how powerful nations rely on a wide supply of mineral resources. These observations converge on the idea that mineral resources are a critical factor for state power. Moreover, the importance of minerals for military capabilities has been highlighted over time, with geologist C. K. Leith in 1939 indicating the shift from a measurement of military power based on manpower to one based on armaments and vehicles, emphasizing the central role of minerals. James Boyd, in 1949, identified mining potential as an indicator of military strength, while John D. Morgan, Jr. highlighted the mining industry as a key element for a country’s ability to sustain a conflict. These statements emphasize the determining effect that mineral resources have on military capabilities and the global power of a nation.

Considering the link between the availability of mineral resources and military power, it is logical to deduce that robust mining power is essential for a nation’s military strength. Notable examples include China, which during the early twenty-first century has established itself as a global leader and major producer of minerals. The US Geological Survey highlights a marked increase in Chinese mining production from 1990 to 2018, parallel to its rise to a dominant power, eventually qualifying it as a superpower. By 2022, China led the production of 30 out of 50 minerals considered critical by the USA, establishing itself as the main supplier for many of these materials. Additionally, in November 2023, the Chinese Minister of Natural Resources announced the intention to strengthen mining research and extraction, signaling China’s significant domestic mining production capacity in this century. In addition to notable mining production, China also possesses vast reserves of critical minerals. Its National Administration of Food and Strategic Reserves manages stocks of essential materials such as aluminum, cobalt, copper, rare earths, and zinc. Although the quantitative details of such stocks are reserved, it is estimated that they are significant and growing. Chinese companies also hold considerable influence over global mining production, controlling directly or indirectly between 40% and 50% of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2020. Similarly, they hold a dominant share in nickel extraction projects in Indonesia, representing about 84% of Indonesian nickel production used for batteries in 2023.

China also imports large quantities of minerals from nations with which it shares similar commercial interests. A significant portion, approximately 40%, of its heavy rare earths comes from Myanmar. Additionally, it places a strong emphasis on purchasing lithium, especially from Australian producers, with whom Chinese enterprises often have common commercial objectives. Thanks to the combination of its abundant internal productions, extensive reserves, control over foreign mining operations, and strategic imports, China has established itself as a mining superpower at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The country’s mining strategy is clearly oriented towards maintaining a steady flow of mineral resources, fundamental both for the economy and the military sector, emphasizing the essential role of mining power in national security and economic development. In the early years of the twentieth century, the United States emerged as a dominant power, establishing itself as the leading producer of minerals worldwide. By 1913, it led the production of 13 of the 30 most important minerals, ranking second for another four. For example, in 1915, it was responsible for 60% of the global production of copper and 32% of lead and zinc. Franklin K. Lane, then U.S. Secretary of the Interior, noted that, with few exceptions, the United States was capable of producing every essential mineral for the industry, a prerogative unique worldwide. By 1917, they had consolidated their status as the world’s leading nation in generating mineral wealth. Throughout the 1920s, their dominance in the mining sector intensified, becoming the leading producer of fluorite, a key mineral for the steel and chemical industry. This attests to the strong domestic mining production of the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century.

During most of the first decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. government had not accumulated stocks of minerals. There was no consolidated policy for the reserve of mineral resources before or during World War I. After the conflict, in 1922, the Army and Navy Munitions Board was created in the United States with the purpose of managing military supplies and organizing industrial mobilization in anticipation of future wars. Subsequently, in 1939, the Strategic and Critical Materials Stock Piling Act was passed, which officially established and funded a program for the accumulation of strategic resources. However, with the USA’s entry into World War II, the government’s attention shifted towards meeting immediate wartime needs rather than creating long-term reserves. Therefore, until almost the middle of the century, the United S , American companies maintained a predominant role in international mining production. They owned and operated extensive mines in various countries of the Western Hemisphere. In particular, they controlled the most significant copper mines in Canada, Chile, and Mexico, dominating the global market for this metal. By the end of the 1920s, just the four major U.S. copper mining firms accounted for more than half of the world’s copper production, extending their influence over two-thirds of the entire production. Similarly, U.S. financial groups had a decisive presence in the production sectors of other key minerals like nickel in Canada and vanadium in Peru, confirming the significant impact of U.S. corporations on the global mining industry during the first part of the twentieth century.

Regarding specific minerals, the United States significantly depended on imports, particularly from the British Empire, with which they controlled approximately 75% of the world’s mineral reserves until 1938. For example, the primary source of tin were mines located in the territories of the British Empire, such as Malaya. Similarly, a large portion of the chromite that arrived in the USA between 1913 and 1933 came from areas under British control, like Rhodesia, or from French colonies, like New Caledonia. Likewise, the U.S. was heavily dependent on manganese imports, which at times constituted over 90% of their total consumption. In 1913, the major imports of manganese to the United States came from British India, Russia, and Brazil, emphasizing the importance of trade alliances for the supply of these essential materials during the early decades of the twentieth century. Given their considerable domestic production, expansion of foreign mining activities, and strategically oriented imports, the United States exhibited significant mining influence at the beginning of the twentieth century. During this time, the main goal of the U.S. government was to protect and enhance the domestic mining industry by adopting protective tariff policies. According to the detailed analysis by Harold Barger and Sam Schurr on the American mining industry from 1899 to 1939, customs duties represented the most influential aspect of fiscal policy on the mining sector, with the introduction of tariffs on minerals such as lead, manganese, mercury, tungsten, and zinc. In addition, the government provided support to the domestic mining industry with various initiatives. For example, following World War I, economic aid was provided to miners of specific minerals, such as chromite, pyrite, manganese, and tungsten, who had expanded their operations at the government’s request but then suffered losses. These and other policy measures attributed the United States with significant mining power in the early years of the twentieth century.

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