The International Seabed Authority (ISA) sits perched above the concrete boardwalk of Jamaica’s Kingston Harbor, across the bay from the spot where “Calico Jack” Rackham was once gibbeted as a warning to other 18th-century pirates. Today, this small UN agency rules the high seas — or, more precisely, the seafloor about 4.8km below — and yet it is largely unknown to the general public.
However, if China decides to retaliate against US import tariffs by restricting its exports of rare earth elements, that could change fast. Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is underwater and the seafloor (or seabed) is rich in rare earth elements and other sought-after minerals — especially in deep international waters. The ISA manages the mineral rights of more than 50 percent of the world’s deep ocean floor and its 168 member states have the right to vie for access to the resources there.
However, given the risk of catastrophic environmental consequences, all countries could lose out if this contest proceeds without due care.
Undersea minerals tend to be clustered in potato-shaped chunks of rock nestled on abyssal plains, vented in boiling-hot water from fissures in the seafloor, and crusted along the flanks of extinct underwater volcanoes called seamounts. Generally, the concentrations of minerals in these formations are much higher than in ores on dry land.
Yet even with all that wealth, the only active seafloor mining project in the world right now is off the coast of Papua New Guinea and it is stalled because of financial problems. That reflects how difficult and expensive it still is to operate in the dark, freezing and high-pressure deep-sea environment, more than 80 percent of which remains unmapped and unexplored.
Nonetheless, commercial organizations and ocean scientists think that new technologies will make deep-ocean mining all but inevitable within the next decade. A range of innovations, such as better satellite imaging of the ocean floor and robot submersibles, is improving seabed access. Moreover, digital-age technologies and the global clean-energy transition are driving a sharp increase in demand for materials that are abundant in the deep ocean. In addition to rare earth elements, these include cobalt, manganese and tellurium, which are used in a growing number of applications, including batteries, magnetic resonance equipment, solar panels and guidance systems for munitions.
Competition for these increasingly useful materials was heating up even before the recent escalation of US-China trade tensions. China has a comparative advantage in critical minerals, owing to its significant domestic resources and extensive processing facilities. It also has longstanding investments in other major producing countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which accounts for about 65 percent of global cobalt production and half of total reserves.
The US, by contrast, must import many high-tech minerals. Accordingly, the US government recently deemed 35 minerals critical to the country’s economic and national security, and announced a new strategy calling for increased domestic mining, among other measures.
In terms of seabed resources, there is no contest between these two geopolitical rivals. China is expected to fare well next year when the ISA issues a new mining code and begins its first-ever permit process for mineral exploitation in international waters.
However, the US will not even be at the table, because it is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and thus is not officially represented at the ISA. A small clique of US senators has long blocked accession to the treaty for obscure ideological reasons, an idiosyncrasy that America might soon decide it can ill afford.
With or without US companies in the mix, economic progress is not a free ride. Recovering and refining the raw materials needed for digital technologies and clean energy inevitably has environmental consequences. All mining — including the noxious process of extracting minerals from rocks — is destructive and it is too soon to tell if deep-ocean mining is more or less destructive than mining on land.
What looks at first like a barren and forbidding wasteland is actually the largest biome on the planet, populated by fantastical creatures such as the anglerfish, vampire squid, and ancient corals that have been around since the Bronze Age. A recent University of Hawaii-led exploration of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a vast international underwater territory stretching from Hawaii to Mexico, documented a plethora of deep-seabed flora and fauna, more than half of which were entirely new to science.
Researchers have also recently discovered that microbial organisms in the deep ocean might play an important part in regulating the Earth’s climate. Some of these formations and organisms have taken millions of years to accrue; disturbing them, or even covering them in the sediment that mining would kick up, could permanently destroy them. Little is known about the role these species and deep-ocean microbes play in fisheries, the global climate and other ecosystem processes that support marine and terrestrial life.
The international community should aim to secure the best, least destructive supply of the minerals it needs, whether from the DRC or the deep ocean — or likely both. We should at least identify and understand the tradeoffs before crucial decisions are made, so as to weigh the possible consequences before they become irrevocable.
Clearly, China and the US — if it can be persuaded to step off the sidelines — must play a leading role in this effort.
When the industrial revolution began, no one could have known that climate change would be one of its end results, but in the digital age, the world must be much more environmentally aware when tapping the deep-ocean mineral riches.
Sharon Burke, former US assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, directs the New America’s Resource Security Program.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement