Vietnam is planning to reopen its biggest rare earths mine amid ambitious plans to dent China’s dominance in a sector that is key to tech production around the globe.
The Western-backed project could rival the world’s largest, according to two companies involved, as part of a broader push to build up the Southeast Asian country’s rare earths supply chain, including developing its capacity to refine ores into metals used in magnets for electric vehicles, smartphones and wind turbines.
As an initial step, Vietnam’s government intends to launch tenders for multiple blocks of its Dong Pao mine before the year’s end, said Tessa Kutscher, an executive at Australia’s Blackstone Minerals Ltd, which plans to bid for at least one concession.
She cited unpublished information from Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which did not respond to requests for comment.
The auction’s timing could change but the government plans to restart the mine next year, said Luu Anh Tuan, chairman of Vietnam Rare Earth JSC , the country’s main refiner and Blackstone’s partner in the project.
The proposed restart of Dong Pao – whose timeline, scale and degree of foreign financial support have not been reported previously – comes as many nations fret about their vulnerability to supply disruptions due to China’s stranglehold on strategic minerals and its disputes with the US and its allies.
Beijing this year imposed export curbs on minor metals used in semiconductors, which an influential Chinese policy adviser warned was “just a start”.
Vietnam has the second-largest rare earth deposits, according to the US Geological Survey. But they have remained largely untapped, with investment discouraged by low prices that are effectively set by China because of its near-monopoly on the global market.
Visiting Hanoi this month to upgrade bilateral relations, US President Joe Biden signed an agreement to boost Vietnam’s ability to lure investors for its rare-earth reserves.
In interviews with Reuters, 12 industry executives, investors, analysts and foreign officials described plans for Vietnam, including investments they said showed how talk of de-risking supply chains to reduce reliance on China is translating into action.
Some acknowledged the difficulties of forging a rare earths hub but said the gambit could make Vietnam a viable player while assuaging strategic worries, even if China remained dominant.
Kutscher said Blackstone’s investment in the project would be worth around $100 million if it wins. She added that the company was talking to potential clients, including electric car makers VinFast and Rivian, about possible contracts with set prices that would shield suppliers from fluctuations and guarantee buyers a secure supply chain.
VinFast Involvement Rumoured
Sealing such deals would address a hurdle faced by developers in Vietnam. In recent years, Japanese investors Toyota Tsusho and Sojitz abandoned projects at Dong Pao after China ramped up supply, pummelling prices. The Japanese firms did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet despite the focus on de-risking, it is unclear whether clients would be ready to pay a premium for Vietnam, said Dylan Kelly, of investment firm Terra Capital, noting the market in general was opaque.
Asked about VinFast’s potential involvement, a spokesperson for parent company Vingroup said the group’s entity in charge of raw-material procurement, VinES, had no current plans with Blackstone involving rare earths.
Effective exploitation of Dong Pao, which has sat dormant for at least seven years, according to an official at state-controlled miner Lavreco, which owns a concession, would propel Vietnam into the top league of rare earths producers.
But refining rare earths is complex, and China controls many processing technologies. Dong Pao’s estimated deposits also need to be reassessed with modern methods, according to Blackstone.
Still, rare earths at Dong Pao are relatively easy to access and are mostly concentrated in bastnaesite ores, according to the Hanoi University of Mining and Geology.
These are typically rich in cerium, used in flat screens, and lanthanides, such as praseodymium and neodymium, which go into magnets.
- Reuters with additional editing by Sean O’Meara