Tianqi Deal Recharges Chile's Lithium Position 

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Apple's iPhone XS announcement grabbed the headlines but this week's biggest lithium battery deal might have taken place 6000 miles to the south. After months of wrangling with Chilean antitrust regulator, Fiscalía Nacional Económica (FNE), China’s Tianqi Lithium has come to terms to increase its 2% stake in Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM) (天齐锂业:收购SQM股权的最后一道坎:需智利法院最终裁决). The two sides officially present their agreement for trade court Tribunal de la Libre Competencia (TDLC) approval today.

Under the terms of the deal, Tianqi will not appoint any members to SQM’s board — they were entitled to three of the eight — and will not be able to access any commercially sensitive information. Tianqi will also have to notify regulators of any future, lithium-related deal with either SQM or Albemarle. The court has until October 4th to rule, which SQM has asked it to reject.

In March, Chile’s Economic Development Agency (CORFO) filed a complaint with FNE to block a late-2017 “non-binding” offer by Tianqi Lithium for Nutrien Ltd’s — formerly Potash Corp of Saskatchewan — 32% stake in SQM. Tianqi and Nutrien closed their deal for $4.1b — a 20% premium — in May, but ultimately needed Chilean approval to take up the stake.

Tianqi’s move was the largest of several by Asia-based companies that have heated up the Latin American lithium market has been active this year:

  • CORFO awarded Chile’s Molymet, China’s Sichuan Fulin Industrial Group, and a South Korean joint venture between Samsung SDI Co Ltd and POSCO deals for investing $754m in value-added industries on the lithium supply chain in exchange for guaranteed lithium supply. 

  • Nextview New Energy Lion Hong Kong’s $265m purchase of Lithium X Energy and its Argentine assets in April; and 

  • POSCO bought the Sal de Vida mine from Australia’s Galaxy Resources for $280m in May.

Looking forward, it is a matter of when and where, not if, China will make its next lithium acquisition in the region. The question may be, does it look to acquire an existing asset, or develop greenfield projects? If the latter, Bolivia's vast reserves may see even greater Chinese attention soon. 

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