In the new lithium 'Great Game,' Germany edges out China in Bolivia

UYUNI, Bolivia/BERLIN (Reuters) - When Germany signed a deal last month to help Bolivia exploit its huge lithium reserves, it hailed the venture as a deepening of economic ties with the South American country. But it also gives Germany entry into the new “Great Game”, in which big powers like China are jostling across the globe for access to the prized electric battery metal.

The signing of the deal in Berlin on Dec. 12 capped two years of intense lobbying by Germany as it sought to persuade President Evo Morales’ government that a small German family-run company was a better bet than its Chinese rivals, according to Reuters interviews with German and Bolivian officials.

While the substance of the deal has been reported, how China, Bolivia’s biggest non-institutional lender and close ideological ally, lost out to Germany has not.

China has been quietly cornering the global lithium market, making deals in Asia, Chile, and Argentina as it seeks to lock in access to a strategic resource that could power the next energy revolution.

China has invested $4.2 billion in South America in the past two years, surpassing the value of similar deals by Japanese and South Korean companies in the same period. Chinese entities now control nearly half of global lithium production and 60 percent of electric battery production capacity.

German officials told Reuters they championed the bid by ACI Systems GmbH because they saw an opportunity to lower Germany’s reliance on Asian battery makers and help its carmakers catch up with Chinese and U.S. rivals in the race to make electric cars.

The German push included a series of visits by German government officials who talked up the benefits of picking a German company. Bolivian officials also toured German battery factories, Bolivia’s deputy minister of High Energy Technologies, Luis Alberto Echazu, told Reuters.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier wrote a letter to Morales, an environmental champion, emphasizing Germany’s commitment to environment protection.

The lobbying effort was capped by a call last April between Altmaier and Morales, Bolivian, German and ACI officials said, without offering details of what was discussed.

German diplomats in La Paz also stressed high-level German government backing for the project, potential loan guarantees and the tantalizing prospect of supply agreements with German automakers, ACI and Bolivian officials told Reuters.

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