Vietnam, with the world’s second-largest reserves of the rare earths used in such modern devices as electric vehicle batteries and smart phone screens, is intensifying mining of the critical minerals. The industry, though, faces high processing costs, environmental concerns, and the takedown of industry leaders for illegal mining and mineral sales.
Vietnam’s rare earth resources are second only to those of China, which has held a tight monopoly since the 1980s. With Chinese relations with the West becoming more volatile, many countries are looking for other sources for the elements.
“China produces about 60% of the world’s rare earths but what they process is over 90%,” Louis O’Connor, CEO of Strategic Metals Invest, an Irish investment firm, told VOA.
“It was not a good idea to allow one country to dominate critical raw materials that are critical to all nations’ economic prosperity and increasingly military capability,” he said.
O’Connor added that while China has the world’s majority of raw materials, its dominance over technical expertise in the complex and costly process of rare earth refining is even greater. China has 39 metallurgy universities and approximately 200 metallurgists graduate weekly in the country, he said.
“The ability to go from having the potential to end product — that’s the most challenging, complicated, and expensive part,” O’Connor said. “For Vietnam, even if they have the deposits, what they don’t have is the human capital, or the engineering expertise.”
Vietnam increased rare earth mining tenfold with its output hitting 4,300 tons last year, compared to 400 tons in 2021. according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Vietnam said in July it plans to process 2 million tons of rare earth ores by 2030 and produce 60,000 tons of rare earth oxides annually starting in 2030. This year, China’s mining quota is set at 240,000 tons to meet the demand for the electric vehicle industry, according to Chinese government data.
The United States and other countries are interested in Vietnam increasing its production of rare earths.
“The U.S. wants Vietnam to become a more important supplier and perhaps replace China, if possible, because of the risk that the U.S. may face in relying on rare earth supplies from China,” Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore told VOA.
“Not only the U.S., but also other partners like Korea, Japan, and Australia also are working with Vietnam to develop the rare earth industry,” he said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol signed a memorandum of understanding in Vietnam in June to establish a joint supply chain center for rare earth minerals.
“We reached an agreement that there is more potential to develop rare earths together, as they are abundant in Vietnam,” Yoon said in a June 23 statement with Vietnam’s president Vo Van Thuong.
The United States signed such a memorandum on cooperation in the rare earths sector during President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi on September 9.
“We see Vietnam as a potential critical nexus in global supply chains when it comes to critical minerals and rare earth elements,” Marc Knapper, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said on September 13 during a digital press briefing. “We certainly want to work together to ensure that Vietnam is able to take advantage of its rich resources in a way that’s also sustainable.”
However, a handful of Vietnam’s key rare earth enterprises have become entangled in scandal. On October 20, police arrested six individuals for mining and tax violations.
Police arrested Doan Van Huan, chairman of the Hanoi-based Thai Duong Group that operates a mine in Yen Bai province, and its chief accountant, Nguyen Van Chinh, for violating regulations on the exploration and exploitation of natural resources and accounting violations, the Public Security Ministry said. The two were accused of making $25.5 million from the illegal sale of rare earth ore and iron ore. Police raided 21 excavation and trading sites in Yen Bai province and three other locations. Authorities seized an estimated 13,700 tons of rare earth and more than 1,400 tons of iron ores, according to local publication VnExpress.
Although government statements did not state what made Thai Duong’s rare earth sales illegal, a source told Reuters raw Yen Bai mine ore had been exported to China to avoid high domestic refining costs, in violation of Vietnamese rules.
The chairman, Luu Anh Tuan, and accountant, Nguyen Thi Hien, of the country’s primary rare earth refining company, Vietnam Rare Earth JSC, were also arrested for violating accounting regulations in trading rare earth with Thai Duong Group. Dang Tran Chi, director of Hop Thanh Phat, and his accountant Pham Thi Ha were arrested on the same charge.
Looking at corruption in Vietnam’s rare earth industry will be “top of the list” for future investors, O’Connor said.
“Corruption levels would have to be looked at,” he said. “If you’re buying a metal that’s going to need to perform in a jet engine, for example or a rocket … they have to be sure of the purity levels. The chain of custody of these, it’s more important really than gold.”
Vietnam committed to industry
Hanoi is committed to developing the rare earths industry even though economic gains are limited by environmental and production costs, Hiep told VOA.
“Vietnam is now interested in promoting this industry mainly because of the strategic significance,” Hiep told VOA. “If you can grow this industry and become a reliable supplier of rare earth products for the U.S. and its allies, Vietnam’s strategic position will be enhanced greatly.”
“Whether that will be successful, we have to wait and see,” he added.
There are also environmental concerns for the growing industry, particularly as a crackdown on Vietnam’s environmental organizations and civil society leaves little room for public speech.
“The biggest challenge is going to be how do you handle the waste process from the mining,” said Courtney Weatherby, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at Washington’s Stimson Center told VOA.
“Ensuring that development happens in a sustainable way takes a lot of different actors,” she said.
But Duy Hoang, executive director of unsanctioned political party Viet Tan, said the room for outside actors to express concern over environmental and labor practices is narrowing.
“What we’re seeing is sort of a shrinking space for civil society to speak out and a number of the leading environmental activists are now in jail. We don’t have their voices which are very needed and I think there may be self-censorship going on by other activists,” he said. “There has to be accountability.”