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China in Africa: The Real Story

China and Rio Tinto in Guinea: A Wild Courtship

Deborah Brautigam

Yesterday we heard from the BBC and others that Chinalco, the Chinese aluminium giant, is likely to partner with Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto in the Simandou iron ore mining venture. The deal was announced just weeks after the Guinean opposition joined the post-coup junta government, with elections on the horizon. What are we to make of this announcement? Several things are significant:
  • It was announced by Rio Tinto, which noted that the well-financed Chinese firm will make an "in kind" investment of $1.35 billion in mining-related infrastructure. Chinalco will be a junior partner in the investment, a reflection of a growing trend for Chinese multinationals to partner with more experienced firms. Chinalco already owns 9% of Rio Tinto; this is not a "first date". Also, Rio Tinto specifically notes that this is a "non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU)." In other words: they're engaged, but not married.
  • It's been a wild courtship so far. As I noted in my March 5 posting, before he died, Guinea's former president Conte had tried to take half of Rio Tinto's concession away and give it to Chinalco, which refused the deal. Rumors that he had given it instead to Israeli tycoon Beny Steinmetz may have been just that: rumors. Rio Tinto is acting as though they still have control over the full Simandou concession and they are making the decisions. But did they conclude this deal under pressure? 
  • On the other hand, the deal seems more strategic than simply caving in. Remember that Chinalco holds 9% of Rio Tinto's shares. These two are hardly strangers. If the Guineans were putting pressure on Rio Tinto, wouldn't the end result be something that shifted benefits to Guinea? The Guinean state still has no ownership shares in the Simandou mine.  
  • Estimates of the cost of developing Simandou have usually cited a figure of $10 billion. But with an investment of only $1.3 billion, Chinalco will have almost half of the stake in the mine.There's something odd about the math here, unless the $1.3 billion is just a starting point.
Finally, it is also significant that Rio Tinto's partner is not the murky, upstart, Hong Kong-based "China International Fund" but a well-established Beijing-based company with an international reputation to keep up. This news also flies in the face of allegations that Western companies were "paralyzed" in Guinea, that China International Fund was buying up the whole country, or even the rumor (reported by the BBC in October 2009) that China International Fund "would be a 'strategic partner' in all mining deals (emphasis added)". Mainstream Chinese companies that have been actively exploring and negotiating deals in Guinea over the past few years appear to still be well-positioned for business. Just like their counterparts from the West. Whether all of this will benefit ordinary Guineans much is another question.