A lesser known fact about China is its growing interest in seabed exploration for polymetallic nodules containing nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. It has made enormous technological investments, and has expanded its mining area to 86,000 square kilometers in the last six years. According to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), China is all set to lead and be the first country in the world to commence mining seabed for minerals after international rules for exploitation are approved in 2020.
In the 1970s, China actively engaged in the formulation of the international seabed resource exploitation regime under the UN, but was constrained to explore the seabed due to lack of technology as also the ongoing Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But a decade later, Chinese research vessels were undertaking voyages to survey seabed. In 1991 China registered with the UN as a Pioneer Investor of deep-seabed exploitation and the ISA granted 300,000 square kilometers in the Clarion–Clipperton area in the Pacific Ocean. It set up the China Ocean Mineral Resources R & D Association (COMRA), the national agency for deep seabed exploration, and enacted China’s Law on Exploration for and Exploitation of Resources in the Deep Seabed Area in 2016.
Today, China boasts of significant breakthroughs in state-of-the-art underwater technology for seabed exploration and processing. Perhaps what is noteworthy is that Chinese scientific research vessels are frequently deployed across the oceans and five to six voyages are planned annually to the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The secretary general of the COMRA has however conceded that China still has a number of technological gaps ‘due to our comparatively weak industrial foundation as a developing country’; but there are plans ‘to conduct underwater exploitation tests at depths of 1,000 meters next year’.
China’s engagements with the ISA are noteworthy; it has made several proactive suggestions to the Agency including capacity building programmes for island states and developing countries. In 2000 it proposed a “natural viability baseline study” in its contract area to monitor long-term human interference on the marine ecology. Similarly, it offered to establish a Regional Environmental Management Plan (REMP) for western Pacific Ocean which also includes Russia, Japan and South Korea who have seabed exploration claims. These countries pursue independent underwater exploration activities for cobalt crust found on seamounts, but do not share data on marine ecological conditions of the area. On a suggestion by China, the ISA endorsed a proposal to share ecological data among the four countries to enable development of ecological conservation plans before commercial seabed mining starts in that area. China hosted a workshop on REMP in Qingdao to “assess regional characteristics and environmental needs” as also foster mutual trust. It even invited scientists and specialists from these countries to join its 56th scientific voyage for the proposed REMP area. China has also offered access to mineral samples collected during the previous scientific expeditions for academic study and research at the China Ocean Sample Repository in Qingdao.
The ISA Assembly, the regulating body for seabed mining activities including granting exploration contracts for industrial-level mining, has approved setting up of a training centre under the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources for capacity building program. This will enable training opportunities for specialist from developing countries including small island states to study and understand the regulations relating to prospecting, exploration and exploitation of seabed as also help setting up REMPs.
In 2011, China was allotted an exploration area of 10,000 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean for 15 years. In 2018, Chinese research vessel Xiangyanghong-10 spent 250 days in the Indian Ocean, and Qianlong-2, an unmanned submersible, operated for 257 hours in nine separate underwater missions covering 654 kilometers. It found polymetallic sulphide deposits on the seabed of western Indian Ocean.
China has now proposed a REMP in the Indian Ocean to include India, Germany and South Korea. India was given Pioneer Investor status in August 1987 and allocated 150,000 square kilometers in the Central Indian Ocean Basin for developmental activities for polymetallic nodules. It has explored 75,000 square kilometers and is developing technologies for mining the wealth. It signed a 15-year MoU with the ISA in 2016 for exclusive rights to exploration of Polymetallic Sulphides (PMS) and would be hosting a workshop on developing a REMP for the Indian Ocean in late 2020. Likewise, in 2014, the ISA awarded exclusive rights to Republic of Korea for exploration for polymetallic sulphides over 10,000 square kilometers of the seabed in the Central Indian Ocean
Germany is committed to environmentally friendly raw materials extraction from the deep sea, a commitment made during its 2015 G7 Presidency. It has rich knowledge of deep sea ecosystems and possesses technologies for deep sea mining. Over the past three decades several German research institutions have invested in exploration of the deep sea and its environment.
While REMP is a laudable initiative, and technological achievements for the resource hungry world are notable, the question remains if the humankind would be better off to recycle than explore and exploit seabed minerals.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.