GT Voice: China's graphite export controls reasonable, necessary move
Published: Oct 22, 2023 11:47 PM
Workers produce amorphous strips for export at an advanced material technology firm in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province on October 9, 2023. In recent years, Qingdao city has vigorously promoted tech innovation and intelligent transformation in industries like new materials, adding momentum to the regional economy. Photo: VCG

An advanced material technology firm  Photo: VCG

China announced on Friday that it will impose export controls on certain graphite materials and related products, effective from December 1. In an announcement jointly issued by the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the General Administration of Customs, the exports of artificial graphite materials and related products with high purity, high strength and high density, as well as natural flake graphite and its products, will be banned, unless permission is granted.

While the new development, which came just days after the Biden administration announced plans to tighten rules on AI chip sales to China, may be described by some Western media outlets like CNN as a move to escalate "a global tech war," it should be noted that China's adjustment of export controls on certain graphite materials doesn't necessarily mean a ban on exports of the mineral crucial to the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. As long as the exports of graphite meet relevant regulations, China will give permission to meet the needs of the international market. 

Since China has sufficient graphite reserves and strong production capacity, Western media outlets generally stressed the impact the export controls may have on the electric vehicle industry, but what they didn't mention is that artificial graphite materials and related products with high purity, high strength and high density can be used for military purposes. 

The types of highly sensitive graphite items had already been under temporary controls and are now being made official, the Xinhua News Agency said. Meanwhile, temporary controls over five types of low-sensitivity graphite items, which are primarily used in downstream industries such as steel, metallurgy, and the chemical industry, have been lifted.

This explains why after conducting a comprehensive assessment under the provisions of the Export Control Law, China still decided to optimize and adjust export controls on graphite, which is conducive to China fulfilling its international obligations such as non-proliferation, to ensuring the safety and stability of global industry and supply chains, and to safeguarding China's national security and interests in an improved manner.

The implementation of export controls on specific graphite items is a common international practice and China's move does not target any specific country or region, the MOFCOM said in a statement.

Of course, due to the strategic importance of graphite resources, and given the fact that China is the world's largest graphite producer, it may be inevitable for some industries to be affected by the new policy. But as the global high-tech industry chain has already been disrupted by the hegemonic behavior of some countries, it would be delusional to expect China to sit idle. When the interests of China's industry chains are hurt, why shouldn't China take necessary measures to protect its legitimate rights and interests?

Fundamentally speaking, there is no need for China to waste mineral resources retaliating against those that imposed sanctions or participated in US-led sanctions against China. With a view of protecting its national interests, China only needs to take a more cautious approach toward cooperation when it comes to using its limited mineral resources more efficiently.

Those who still consider China's export controls on graphite as a blow or retaliation for the US chip war and high-tech crackdown on China are advised to take a look at the history of US curbs on graphite exports to China. 

The US imposed strict controls on exports of graphite products to China decades ago. In July 2006, the former Bush administration authorized exports of more than 900 tons of bulk graphite to China, which went through a lengthy and complicated process, according to media reports.

If anything, the shift from US export curbs on graphite to China's export controls represents more than just China's hard-won technological advance. It is true the development of the electric vehicle battery industry in China has driven the fast rise of its graphite processing technology and capacity.

More importantly, history has shown that containing China's technological progress actually represents utter short-sightedness and ignorance, a blind belief in hegemonism. There is no denying China cannot overtake or replace the US in all aspects in terms of technological development, but the more curbs that the US imposes in a certain area, the faster China's progress will be. It is always the case that China will focus on breaking the more severe technical constraints of the US embargo.