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Some observers argue that the Soviets may be stockpiling for war, while others say that their new mineral import dependency may well make the Soviets more aggressively acquisitive -- and increase the likelihood of foreign military adventurism in mineral-rich regions such as southern Africa.

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But the truth may be far less dramatic, suggests Phillips Purdy, vice-president of Houston International Minerals Corporation.

"The Russians have the raw materials, but they find it more cost-effective to get them from other nations rather than getting them from their own country," he says.

"They weren't continually developing their own resources," he explains, "they were mining those resources that had already been discovered and that were handy , and suddenly they're running out of them.

"So in the meantime," he concludes, "they've had to go out on the open market and buy. It's basic shortsightedness and economics."

Efforts have been made to insulate US defense needs from minerals cutoffs and disruptions in the marketplace. Since the end of World War II, the US has systematically stockpiled some 93 strategic minerals, metals, and other materials with a 1978 value of $9.4 billion.

Some stockpile goals have yet to be met, however, and experts disagree over the amount, and kind, of materials that should make up the US stockpile.

Nevertheless, a researcher who has just completed an exhaustive study of South Africa's minerals -- Peter Vale, a lecturer in international relations at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand -- says, "The US, it seems to me, hs enough stockpiles to get by, somehow, for three to five years."

But, he adds, "Your allies have virtually none."

The costs of accumulating stockpiles would, by most estimates, be substantial. One estimate is that for West Germany to amass a 97-day stockpile of chrome, the cost would be 300 million deutsche marks (approximately $156 million). The price tag for a six-month cobalt stockpile for Britain is pegged at about $:31 million ($76 million).

A recent US Library of Congress study concluded that an interruption of South African mineral supplies "would not spell disaster" for either the US or its Western allies.

But Mr. Vale points out that the varying degrees of hardship that such a cutoff would cause the Western allies do shape up as an important US foreign policy concern.

"If Reagan is serious about his promises to keep the alliance together, he is going to have to give attention to [this] fact," he observes.

Similarly, experts point out that the US must be cautious in its approach to the question. If South Africa became convinced that Western countries were building up stockpiles in preparation for economic sanctions against this country, they say, it could theoretically cut back exports and drive prices to prohibitively high levels.

That is no a move Pretoria would take lightly, since it would undercut this country's carefully sculpted image as a reliable supplier and could give greater urgency to moves to lessen Western dependence on this country. Still, exports of chrome and manganese account for less than 5 percent of South Africa's mineral export earnings.

As one high-ranking official here says, South Africa's strategic minerals "are much more important to our customers than they are to us."

Would South Africa resort to withholding if the government perceived a threat to the present political order?

South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha makes it clear such a move has not been ruled out by Pretoria's strategists.

"America, Western Europe, and Japan are highly dependent on the strategic mineral imports from South Africa," he says.

"If economic sanctions are applied against us, we shall not only fight against it, we shall take steps which will demonstrate the folly of sanctions against South Africa."

Next: South Africa's maritime significance