Vietnam has stepped up its efforts to sell its underutilized rare-earth mines to foreign investors even as the United States expressed its readiness to assist Hanoi in organizing auctions for them. The development is likely to have an impact on geopolitics and global economy, a statement clearly made by Emily Blanchard, the U.S. State Department chief economist, during her recent visit to Hanoi. The overture came as Vietnam plans to launch tenders for several sections of its Dong Pao mine, one of the world’s largest untapped reserves of rare earths, by year’s end, a move that could help Vietnam become a contender against the world’s top producer, China, and partake in a broader drive to disrupt Beijing’s supremacy in the sector.
The reactivation of Vietnam’s Dong Pao mine presents a ray of hope, potentially providing an alternative source of rare earths that could challenge China’s stronghold. Yet, such a shift doesn’t come without complexities. The authorities have intensified a clampdown on illegal rare earth mining from neglected or abandoned pits in recent months. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese police arrested six people in connection with violation of mining regulations. The accused included chairman of a company called Vietnam Rare Earth JSC (VTRE), Luu Anh Tuan, who was accused of forging value-added tax receipts in trading rare earths with Thai Duong Group, which operates a mine in the northern Vietnamese province of Yen Bai. Tuan’s company is at the forefront of a drive to create a rare earth industry that could challenge China’s dominance of the sector. VTRE has created a partnership with Australian mining companies Australian Strategic Materials (ASM) and Blackstone Minerals LTD, which were not named in the Vietnamese authorities’ investigation. Blackstone has decided to make an investment in the project that would amount to about 100 million US dollars should it win the concession.
The police also arrested chairman of Thai Duong Group, Doan Van Huan, for making 25.80 million US dollars from illegal sales of ore extracted from the mine his company operated in Yen Bai province, with the authorities temporarily seizing 13,715 tons of rare earths ores in a raid on the company’s premises, according to official statements from government officials. According to a recent Reuters report, the government statement did not clarify what made the sales illegal, but a person with direct knowledge of the matter said that the Yen Bai mine raw ores had been exported to China, as the domestic refining costs for those ores were unprofitable. Under Vietnamese rules, export of raw ores is largely restricted, as the country wants to boost its refining capacity. China, which has been closely watching rare earth related developments in Vietnam, is wary of the ongoing strengthening of US-Vietnam ties. However, it said that the US support for Vietnam’s rare-earth development looks like a challenge to China, as Beijing believes that rare earths shall not be a tool for the US to drive a wedge between China and Vietnam as the two neighbouring countries have the potential to cooperate in the rare-earth industrial chain. With rare earths reportedly in short supply globally, the U.S. is in urgent need of restructuring the rare-earth supply chain, and Vietnam is supposed to be a critical part of the process. It is no secret that China currently supplies most of the world’s rare earths, so whether or not Vietnam establishes a rare-earth industrial chain, its development of the industry could be interpreted by outsiders as a potential challenge to China’s position in the sector.
China has no intention to compete with Vietnam on rare-earth exports. Should Vietnam rely entirely on the U.S. to develop its own rare-earth industry, it would not be conducive to seek the maximization of interests from its rare-earth resources, especially when Beijing doesn’t possess the most critical processing technologies. When it comes to rare earths, China needs to invest more in technological upgrading to ensure its leading position in the industrial chain, something that is essential also for cooperation with Vietnam, which is in the (un)comfortable position to strike a balance between reducing its dependence on China on the one hand, and cooperating with the U.S. to develop its rare-earth industry on the other hand.