Disputes over the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) continue unabated, and most East and Southeast Asian countries have taken some kind of position on the issue. Academics and experts have expressed opinions based on fishing grounds, energy resources and territorial sovereignty. However, there is another key strategic resource in dispute — the undersea reserves of rare earths.
China has long been aware of the strategic value of these metals. At present, 95 percent of the global supply of rare earths mined on land comes from China. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) once declared that, while the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths, and he suggested that China could strictly control the export and supply of these minerals, as OPEC does with oil.
Rare earths on the seabed appear in the form of polymetallic nodules, also called manganese nodules. These so-called “black pearls” may contain more than 60 metallic elements. It is estimated that reserves of such metals in the Pacific Ocean alone can meet demand for 600 years or more. Since the 1980s, countries that are capable of deep-sea exploration, such as the US, Japan, France and Germany, have been competing to explore the seabed.
Last year Japan budgeted ￥6.8 billion (about US$86 million) to explore the seabed around Minami Torishima, or Marcus Island, which lies about 2,000km southeast of Tokyo. A report published by University of Tokyo associate professor Yasuhiro Kato in July last year says that a team of Japanese scientists has discovered an area rich in rare earths in the Pacific Ocean between longitudes 120 and 180 degrees east. They estimate that this area of seabed contains 80 billlion to 100 billion tonnes of such minerals — much more than the figure of 110 million tonnes given by the US Geological Survey for confirmed global reserves.
Over the past few years, China’s self-built manned submersible Jiaolong has been tested at progressively greater depths. In July 2010, it reached a depth of 3,759m in the South China Sea, and its crew members staked a claim by planting China’s national flag on the seabed. Last month, the Jiaolong reached a depth of 7,015m in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
The Jiaolong’s most important function may be prospecting for undersea rare earths. Last month, China’s State Oceanic Administration director Liu Cigui (劉賜貴) said that between 2001 and last year, China had successfully applied to the International Seabed Authority for exclusive exploration rights and priority commercial mining rights for two zones of seabed where polymetallic nodules are present. These two zones measure 75,000km2 and 10,000km2 — which, together, is nearly twice the surface area of China’s Hainan Island. Liu said that one of the main purposes of the Jiaolong’s deep-sea test dives was to discover what metallic minerals are to be found there.
All this may explain why Japan attaches so much importance to its territorial claim over the Okinotorishima coral reefs, while China refuses to recognize Japan’s claim and has held several naval maneuvers nearby.
Rare-earth reserves may also exist near Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (太平島) in the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China, among others, and the value of such mineral deposits might be equivalent to tens of millions of New Taiwan dollars per capita in Taiwan. If so, one wonders how hard Taiwan’s government will fight to defend its claim over these islands.