BEIJING - China's Zijin Mining has gained a licence to explore and develop the northeast of the Manono Lithium Mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world's largest lithium deposits.

The Manono Lithium SAS, a joint venture by Zijin's subsidiary Jinxiang Lithium and DRC'S state-owned Cominiere, has obtained an exploration licence in the northeast of the tenement, it said in a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday.

"If exploration and feasibility studies go well, this has strong potential to become the first to-production lithium project for Zijin in Africa and the DRC," Jian Heyuan, general manager of Manono Lithium told Reuters in emailed comments overnight.

"Zijin intends to complete the construction of the Project within 2 years, after conducting the feasibility study and confirming financing," he said.

The company did not specify when the project will start exploration.

The exploration tenement had initially been won by Australian listed AVZ Minerals, but it was revoked by the DRC who said the company had not developed it fast enough.

AVZ, which was worth A$2.8 when it delisted from the Australian stock exchange last May, is disputing that decision and is engaged in a number of related arbitrations.

Zijin first announced the exploration project in January 2022. Later, it entered a legal dispute with AVZ over the purchase of a 15% stake in the DRC's Manono project.

"Zijin is committed to continuing to explore and develop this project with Cominiere, the DRC, local stakeholders and the DRC people," said Chen Chen, in-house legal counsel for Zijin Mining told Reuters in an emailed comment.

"We cannot speculate as to what legal issues will arise in the future, but will defend the new JV so that work on the northern tenement may continue for the benefit of the DRC and its local communities."

China's top gold and copper miner, Zijin has joined the global race to secure lithium assets in recent years, investing in both domestic mines and sites in Argentina to produce the metal used in electric vehicle batteries.

(Reporting by Siyi Liu in Beijing and Felix Njini in Johannesburg. Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Michael Perry)