CHINA'S chief rare earths research body says it expects the nation to become a net importer, even though it is the world's biggest producer.
The news is bound to fuel supply concerns from big consumers like Japan and the US.
In a presentation in Vancouver, Chinese Society of Rare Earths director Chen Zhanheng said Chinese consumption of the substances was growing rapidly.
"(There are) early signals that China is moving from sell-side to buy-side. China becomes a new market opportunity for producers outside China," he said. Chinese exports of rare earths peaked at nearly 60,000 tonnes, but slipped to about 39,000 tonnes in 2009.
That level was still more than Chinese quotas, which have been designed to slash exports.
The concern over rare earths supply has led Japan's Sojitz to form a partnership with Lynas Corp, which gives it import rights for 9000 tonnes of Australian rare-earth metals a year.
In return, Sojitz will seek up to $US250 million in Japanese funding to develop the project.
It had been expected that China would eventually become a net importer of rare earths, but the government has said little.
Lynas chairman Nick Curtis, who sparked a 9 per cent slip in the company's share price on Wednesday when he sold most of his shares, has said he believes China will be a net importer within five years.
Mr Chen said the quota from 2011 to 2015 should be between 32,000 and 35,000 tonnes.
The CSRE expects the rest of the world's production to grow from about 47,000 tonnes, or 35 per cent of global supply, in 2013 to 178,000 tonnes, or 64 per cent of estimated supply, in 2015.