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Rare Earth Magnet Firms Plan Vietnam Plants as China Hedge

South Korea’s Star Group Industrial and China’s Baotou INST Magnetic will join companies in sectors such as electronics and autos in shifting assembly lines amid backdrop of increasing trade rivalry

Companies are looking to produce rare earth magnets in Vietnam amid rising concern over trade tensions between the US and China, plus China's dominance of the rare earth sector.
Companies are looking to produce rare earth magnets in Vietnam amid rising concern over trade tensions between the US and China, plus China's dominance of the rare earth sector. AFP file photo of rare earths at a port in northeast China.


Korean and Chinese companies that make magnets from rare earths are preparing to open factories in Vietnam.

The moves come as countries seek to create a more diverse range of suppliers of rare earth products because of growing tensions between China and the US and its allies in Europe, Asia and Oceania.

South Korea’s Star Group Industrial (SGI) and China’s Baotou INST Magnetic will join companies in sectors as varied as electronics and automobiles in shifting assembly lines amid a backdrop of increasing trade restrictions.

People familiar with the plans say clients had requested that companies, including an Apple supplier, make such a move because of rising Sino-US tension.


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Untapped rare earth deposits

China is dominant in magnets and the rare earth metals they are made from. The magnets are central to the manufacturing of products such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, weapons and smartphones, making the sector strategically important. Even so, there has been only limited effort to challenge China’s lead.

Neighbouring Vietnam, however, has untapped rare earth deposits that some claim are second only to China’s, as well as a fledgling processing industry, giving the country the potential to be a much bigger competitor, industry insiders said.

SGI’s Vietnam project, for instance, targets 2025 output of 5,000 tons of high-end neodymium (NdFeB) magnets per year, enough for 2 million electric vehicles (EVs).

Still, Vietnam produces just 1% of the world’s magnets, showed Adamas Intelligence data cited in a US Department of Energy report, compared with China’s 92%.

Moreover, some Chinese factories can produce 10 times as many magnets as SGI’s project, and China dominates the mining and processing of the ores.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s rise is significant.

SGI’s plant at full capacity would produce nearly 3% of the 2022 global output estimated by Project Blue, a critical materials consultancy. That equates to nearly half of US imports of neodymium magnets last year, US trade data showed.

Moreover, US officials have signalled growing interest in Vietnam’s rare earths potential amid discussion to upgrade bilateral ties this year, and South Korea signed a deal with Vietnam in June to boost its supply chain of critical minerals.

Magnet makers are also drawn to Vietnam by low labour costs and market access afforded by multiple free-trade deals. They also want to move closer to Vietnam-based clients, such as automakers and electronics firms, which are increasingly wary of over-reliance on Chinese supplies as relations worsen between Washington and Beijing, industry insiders said.

Vietnam is the only country beyond China with all stages of the magnet supply chain, from mining rare earths to downstream production, said a Vietnam-based industry consultant, who was not authorised to speak to media so declined to be identified.

The government plans a vast expansion of rare earths production by the end of the decade and is boosting refining capacity, which the US energy department estimated accounts for 3% of the global share.

However, “anyone who is trying to build from scratch a mine-to-magnet supply chain is going to face a lot of challenges”, David Merriman of Project Blue said.


Doubling output

SGI, which supplies magnets to Vietnamese EV maker VinFast and Korea’s Hyundai Motor, said it is investing $80 million in its new Vietnam factory with production starting in 2024.

The plant would nearly double the company’s current output of 3,000 tons a year from factories in South Korea and China.

SGI described the investment as part of “counter-measures” against possible Chinese trade restrictions.

“China’s policy on control of rare earths-related raw materials and technology is being strengthened, resulting in supply uncertainty,” SGI said.

It said it sources most of its rare earths from China but is seeking alternative sources in Vietnam and Australia and plans to develop a processing facility in Vietnam.


Apple supplier 

China’s INST is set to begin operations as early as next month at a leased plant in northern Vietnam after gaining local approval in June, two people familiar with the plans said.

INST, a large magnet firm specialising in circuit design, was added to Apple’s supplier list in 2021. Its expansion into Vietnam follows requests from clients to diversify away from China amid growing trade tension, the two people said, declining to identify the clients.

China’s Luxshare and Taiwan’s Foxconn are among major Apple suppliers who manufacture magnet-equipped products in Vietnam such as iPad tablets and MacBook laptops.

INST’s initial investment is limited to a few million dollars, with a possible second phase involving more spending for the building of its own plant, the people said, declining to be named as they did not have clearance to discuss the matter.

INST did not respond to a request for comment.

A similar request from clients prompted another Chinese magnet maker, Magsound, to decide to open a factory in Vietnam in the first half of next year, the two people said.

However, after winning approval in June, Magsound withdrew plans this month, registry documents showed, which the people said followed the collapse of supply deal talks with Luxshare.

Luxshare and Magsound did not reply to requests for comment.

Among magnet makers in Vietnam, Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical has been expanding facilities this year after deciding in 2017 to double annual capacity there to 2,200 tons, showed company statements and details on consultancy Obayashi’s website.

Shin-Etsu and Obayashi did not reply to requests for comment.

In April, Australia’s Strategic Materials signed a deal with a Vietnamese refiner that committed to supplying rare earths for export to South Korea.


  • Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard




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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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