As I think about the ongoing mating dance between mining giants BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) and Rio Tinto (NYSE:RTP) -- with musical accompaniment by the growing Chinese steel industry -- I wonder just how long it'll take the world to realize that we're in the early stages of a commodities crunch that extends far beyond oil shortages.

That point was hammered home yet again on Thursday, when London-based mining giant Rio Tinto provided expectations for its production levels in the coming years. According to the company, its compound annual production is likely to increase at a rate of 8.6% each year through 2015, and it expects demand to double by 2022. Not long ago, BHP, which has offered 3.4 of its shares for each Rio Tinto share, said it expects compounded annual growth of 8% between now and 2015.

Together BHP, Rio Tinto, and Brazil's Vale (NYSE:RIO) control more than half of the world's supply of iron ore, a key ingredient in the production of steel. The possible economic effects of a BHP - Rio Tinto combination have not been lost on the Chinese, whose steel industry is exploding.

As a result, not long after the BHP offer was tendered, the Aluminum Corp. of China (NYSE:ACH) -- aka Chalco -- and Alcoa (NYSE:AA) teamed up to acquire a stake in Rio Tinto. And recently there have been rumors of Chinese interests preparing to take a position in BHP, too.

Part of the difficulty in meeting the demands for minerals is that -- like oil -- reserves weren't always buried in the most convenient or hospitable places. For instance, Rio Tinto is attempting to ramp up an iron ore project in the Republic of Guinea, but is being thwarted by infrastructure and transportation difficulties.

Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) faces similar troubles as it watches the costs associated with its new copper project in the Democratic Republic of Congo vastly exceed forecasts. Nevertheless, Rio Tinto expects its Guinea project to ultimately yield 2.25 billion tons of iron ore.

Clearly, the company's update aimed, in part, to highlight its own growth potential as it continues to spurn BHP's offer. Beyond that, with most commodities becoming more and more precious, Fools would be well advised to keep an eye on that BHP - Rio Tinto dance. 

For my money, mining and metals will be an awfully good place to park your bucks for many years to come.

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