China's rare earth imports from Myanmar dry up after border closure

(Reuters) - China’s imports of rare earths from neighbouring Myanmar slowed to a trickle in August, Chinese customs data showed on Monday, as the closure of a key border crossing to contain the spread of the coronavirus impeded shipments.

China is the world’s dominant producer of rare earths, a group of 17 minerals used in consumer electronics and military equipment, but relies on Myanmar for around 50% of its heavy rare earth feedstock.

The disruption could have a knock-on effect on manufacturers of rare earth magnets used in electric vehicles and wind turbines and has already pushed up prices for key magnet inputs such as terbium and dysprosium.

Imports of rare earth compounds from Myanmar, which go to China for processing into material that can be used by manufacturers, were just 23 tonnes last month, data released by China’s General Administration of Customs showed.

That was down 91.8% from 270 tonnes in July, which was itself down 79% from June.

The border crossing with Myanmar at Tengchong, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, was shut in mid-July to stave off rising coronavirus cases.

“The situation has yet to see any improvement, suggesting it is unlikely the border will reopen in the short term,” Roskill analyst Leslie Liang said on a Sept. 15 webinar, adding that this meant China was unable to ship chemicals to help with ore dressing in Myanmar or import rare earth compounds.

“All the Chinese (state-owned enterprises) who used to rely on Myanmar ... over the last five years now have to face supply-chain risks with very few alternative suppliers,” she added.

China’s imports of rare earth oxides from Myanmar were just 70 tonnes in August, down 93.5% from July, with imports from Malaysia unusually higher at 180 tonnes.

There were zero shipments of rare earth carbonate mixtures to China from Myanmar last month.

Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Bernadette Baum