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China proves crucial lifeline for African mining sector

2013-03-19 09:43 China Daily     Web Editor: qindexing comment

Chinese investment in the continent's mining industry comes in different forms and is crucial for both, as Andrew Moody reports in Cape Town, South Africa

The relative slowdown in China's economy was one of a number of factors casting a shadow over the recent Mining Indaba Conference in Cape Town. The mining sector in South Africa has other problems closer to home, including labor unrest and the threat of increasing government regulation.

But the demand for resources from the world's second-largest economy - as for the rest of the continent - remains an important lifeline for the mining industry.

The sector has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange remains highly sensitive to economic data coming from China.

Last year was particularly bad for the iron ore industry, with prices slumping to $88 a metric ton, a three-year low, in September on fears about China's recovery.

China, the world's largest consumer of steel, is the destination for half of the world's iron ore exports.

Chinese investments still continue to be made, however. It was announced in February that a Chinese consortium, headed by the Chinese mining group Jinchuan, is taking a 45 percent stake in South Africa's Wesizwe Platinum. It is the first Chinese investment in the platinum sector and about $650 million of the capital is being provided by China Development Bank.

China's Hanlong Group is also set to complete a $1.45 billion takeover of Sundance Resources, the Australian company that owns important West African iron ore supplies, including the Mbalam mine straddling Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

Another major Chinese acquisition could have been African Barrick Gold, Tanzania's largest gold mining concern, had talks between China National Gold Corporation and Canadian Barrick Gold Corporation over a $3.9 billion deal not collapsed in January.

David Humphreys, principal at DaiEcon Advisors, a London-based consultancy specializing in the mining industry and one of the keynote speakers at Indaba, said the mining industry, particularly in Africa, has become obsessed with China.

"As a result, any suggestion that China will slow down sends shockwaves through the thinking of the industry," he said.

He said the big fear is that China will follow the same path as Japan whose huge appetite for resources in the 1960s and 1970s leveled off and has been on a plateau since.

"That is where a lot of the debate is now focused, whether China will follow Japan or whether it is a false analogy. The difference could turn on just a small percentage either way."

Michael Power, investment strategist at Investec Asset Management, said putting the blame on China for any fall in commodity prices is perverse.

"The reason why prices have fallen across a range of commodities is that demand in the West has collapsed. You watch CNBC and Bloomberg and they have a hissy fit when China's growth rate is 0.1 or 0.2 points down, but it doesn't tell you what was going on in dollar terms."

The Chinese attendance at Indaba proved that Chinese companies are still very much part of a major presence in the market.

Huang Haiwei, associate director of The Beijing Axis, a consultancy that provides strategic advice to Chinese companies in the resources sector, said Chinese companies are still very much active in the market.

Huang said most of his clients - both State-owned enterprises and private companies - are looking to take complete ownership of existing facilities or enter into strategic equity partnerships rather than develop greenfield sites. A typical investment would be $100 million.

"It is a very capital-intensive business. The investors are not looking for short-term cash-generating projects but are looking to get cash flow over five, six or nine years," he said.

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