Stock - Manila skyline / Philippines
Philippines is one of top two nickel suppliers with Indonesia. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Manila: The Philippines should have bigger mines to encourage investment in the downstream sector, according to tycoon Manuel Pangilinan, who says the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation should take advantage of brisk demand for electric vehicles.

"It's the mines that should be expanded to the point where you have the basis to justify smelting or refining operations in this country," Pangilinan told reporters Monday evening. Pangilinan is the chairman of Philex Mining Corp. which has a copper-gold mine that's slated to start production next year and is also looking at developing a new nickel mine.

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Pangilinan said he supports the plan to ramp up resource processing locally to export higher-value products. "But you have to have significant mines as factory inputs to your smelter or refining operations," he said.

The Philippines and Indonesia are the world's biggest suppliers of nickel "- used in making stainless steel and in lithium-ion batteries for EVs "- to top market China. Unlike Indonesia, which boosted its nickel exports to $30 billion from $3 billion in two years as Chinese companies built refineries and smelters there, the Philippines continues to ship out most of its raw nickel ore amid a lack of processing facilities.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s government has been pushing miners to invest in the downstream sector to become a major player in the EV supply chain. Manila has considered following Indonesia by taxing nickel ore exports among a range of measures to lure investment in processing plants.

Less than 3 per cent of the 9 million hectares that have been identified by the Philippine government as having high mineral potential is covered by mining tenements, according to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

Among the undeveloped ones is the Tampakan gold-copper mine in southern Mindanao island, considered one of the largest untapped mineral resource in Southeast Asia that had been halted by an open-pit mining ban, prompting Glencore Plc to quit the project in 2015.

Pangilinan said Philex's Silangan copper-gold mine, also in Mindanao, should be operational by 2025 and the company has been exploring areas within Padcal mine in northern Philippines that could extend the mine life. Philex has also been looking at developing a new nickel mine in Zambales province in the main Luzon island.

The growing EV industry in China "will require a lot of nickel, a lot of copper, a lot of lithium," said Pangilinan. "The future of mining is looking bright and we should be participating in those prospects now."