Imports of rare earth ores and concentrates from Myanmar were banned earlier this month by Chinese authorities. Imports from Myanmar have been a significant source of rare earth raw materials to the Chinese industry since 2017. In addition, China closed the Tengchong Yunnan/Myanmar port, which has been the main boarder crossing point for rare earth ores and concentrates, with no sign of the port reopening over the coming months. In 2018, imports of rare earth materials from Myanmar into China were reported to contain 23kt REO, including 860t Dy oxide and 130t Tb oxide, equivalent to 40% of China’s annual production.
Since more stringent environmental controls were implemented in Southern Chinese provinces during 2016 and subsequent years, rare earth mining activities moved from China to Myanmar and other countries bordering Yunnan province. Approximately 15,000-16,000 people migrated from Ganzhou, Jiangxi province to Myanmar during this period to exploit rare earth resources and supply material back to the Chinese market. The ban on imports into China comes after a six-month winding-down period agreed in late 2018, which required Chinese enterprises to hand back control of rare earth mining operations in Myanmar. The reasoning behind the ban from one perspective can be seen as China dissociating itself from unregulated mining in Myanmar which has caused significant environmental damage historically in Southern Chinese provinces. Alternatively, the ban closes a predominant route of illegal production into the Chinese industry, continuing with Beijing’s campaign to reduce illegal rare earth production to below 5ktpy REO. According to market consensus in China, it is considered unlikely that the Tengchong Yunnan/Myanmar port will be reopened in 2019.
Ultimately, the closure of the Myanmar-China border for rare earths trade is expected to disrupt the supply chain of many rare earth processors in Southern China through the remainder of 2019, with alternative sources few and far between. The short-term restart of several ion-adsorption clay mines in Southern China is considered unlikely, as many require investment to upgrade facilities to current environmental standards. As a result, tightening supply of raw materials is expected to cause some rare earth producers (including SOEs) to fall short of annual production quotas, or for significant de-stocking to occur. Prices for heavy rare earths, particularly dysprosium, are also expected to increase, given greater supply side pressure and increasing demand from magnet alloy producers.