Biden Officials Discussed Argentina’s Lithium — a Key EV Mineral — in Talks with Javier Milei

Javier Milei
Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

Argentina’s President-elect Javier Milei and American National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed the outsized role his country may play in the global lithium industry if properly developed, multiple Argentine news outlets reported on Tuesday.

Milei and a small entourage of soon-to-be administration officials visited the White House on Tuesday for the tail end of a brief trip to the United States. Milei landed in New Jersey from Buenos Aires on Monday morning and made a stop in New York City to pray at the Ohel, a Jewish holy site where the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is buried. He then attended a lunch with former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), before traveling to Washington, DC.

At the lunch, Milei reportedly presented his economic rescue plan to the former president. Argentina is currently facing the direst economic crisis of its modern history, fueled by an inflation rate of upwards of 140 percent, a steep decline in the value of the dollar, and skyrocketing unemployment and poverty rates. As a candidate, Milei vowed to introduce the U.S. dollar as an official currency, do away with the Argentine Central Bank, and privatize as much of the Argentine market as possible.

Milei’s only reported stop in Washington was at the White House. Neither President Joe Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris made time to meet the Argentine president-elect, traveling instead to Atlanta, Georgia, for the funeral of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

A sign against the exploitation of lithium is seen as employees work at the Salinas Grandes salt flat, shared by the Argentine northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy, near the Kolla indigenous community of Santuario de Tres Pozos, which in 2019 expelled two mining companies from the salt flat, in Jujuy, on October 18, 2022. (AIZAR RALDES/AFP via Getty Images)

Milei, a self-described libertarian who won a decisive victory in the November 19 presidential election, will take office on December 10. He will be replacing socialist President Alberto Fernández, whose tenure was defined by a sharp turn away from friendly ties with the United States and the significant expansion of Chinese communist influence in the country. Fernández formally incorporated Argentina into China’s predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and revised economic policy to replace the U.S. dollar with the Chinese yuan to pay for Chinese imports.

Milei’s policies are expected to contrast widely with Fernández’s approach. As a candidate, Milei insisted on several occasions that he would not allow the state to engage in business deals or keep ties with communist nations, explicitly naming China among them, insisting he preferred close ties to “civilized” states such as America and Israel.

Much of China’s interest in Argentina stems from its abundant lithium resources. Lithium is used to make batteries for mobile phones, laptops, electric vehicles, and other critical technology. China controls 70 percent of the world’s lithium processing and is the world’s top lithium importer. Argentina is believed to be home to the world’s second-largest lithium resources and ranks number four on the list of the world’s largest producers. As of 2022, over 40 percent of Argentina’s lithium exports go to China, compared to just nine percent to America.

China has greatly expanded its economic influence in Latin America at the same pace that it has moved to dominate lithium production, prompting even governments sympathetic to the Communist Party to take protective measures.

Argentine President-elect Javier Milei (R) departs from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, in Washington, DC, on November 28, 2023. ( MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

In neighboring Chile – the world’s second-largest lithium producer, radical leftist President Gabriel Boric announced a plan in April to nationalize the lithium industry, effectively preventing Chinese state-backed companies from buying up a dominant stake in the industry and controlling Chile’s production.

Milei is unlikely to take a similar measure, as a free-market libertarian who has vowed to keep the government’s role in industry as small as possible, but discussions of lithium in the White House could see Milei invite Washington to be a greater consumer of Argentina’s mineral wealth. The Argentine newspapers Clarín and La Nación reported on Tuesday that lithium was on the agenda for Milei’s meeting with Sullivan. Milei and Sullivan – and a small group including Biden Latin America adivser Juan González and regional Vice-Secretary of State Brian Nichols – “discussed the role that Argentina can play in the lithium market, in energy, and in semiconductors,” according to Clarín.

“Milei said that he would favor liberal democracies and the free market,” it added.

The White House readout on the meeting did not mention lithium but stated that Milei and Sullivan discussed “clean energy.” The two, it said, addressed “shared priorities such as investing in technology and clean energy, advocating for human rights, and standing up for democracies around the world.”

Milei’s team, via a press vehicle it has branded the “office of the president-elect,” also offered no more specifics on the lithium discussion. It did describe the meeting as “positive” and focused on Milei emphasizing “a geopolitical agenda aligned with the West and his defense of the values of freedom.”

“It was an excellent meeting, we are very satistifed,” Milei himself told reporters outside the White House shortly after the meeting ended. “We have talked about the economic and social situation in Argentina in this moment and also talked about what is going to be the new alignment of Argentina within the nations who respect liberty.”

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