Analysis & Opinions - The Wire China

The Ocean Edge

| Nov. 06, 2022

Climate change and geopolitics are setting up a scramble for the global oceans.

In August 2017, the survey vessel Xiang Yang Hong 06, carrying a crew of 26, departed the Chinese port of Qingdao bound for the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. The remote stretch of ocean, about 2,000 miles southeast of Baja California, contains one of the world’s largest known resources of cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese. All across the Zone’s seabed, potato-shaped nodules rich in the critical minerals lie scattered, indistinguishable from rocks to the untrained eye.

The ship’s operator, the vast state-owned conglomerate China Minmetals Corp., holds an exclusive exploration license from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for over 70,000 square kilometers of the Zone. When it reached its destination, the ship sent down scooping devices to capture nodules while underwater drones glided silently over the seabed, sending up high-definition maps of the richest deposits.

Chinese mining firms have five exploration contracts in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, more than any other country and covering by far the largest expanse of territory. In 2019, Liu Feng, secretary general of the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, boasted that China had “developed almost all the state-of-the-art technology needed” to begin large-scale extraction of critical minerals from the ocean floor.

“The Chinese have taken a very long-term interest in seabed mining,” says Evan T. Bloom, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and former acting deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries. “They have been preparing for this moment for a long time.”

The advent of seabed mining does finally seem to be upon us. Engineers have speculated for decades about unlocking the mineral wealth on the ocean floor. But given the extreme technological difficulty of operating miles below the surface — in darkness and under extreme pressure — seabed mining has never been economical, so the ISA has never gotten around to regulating it.

It is hard to describe the extent of the devastation that seabed mining causes.

James A.R. McFarlane, former head of the Office of Resources and Environmental Monitoring at the ISA
Now, the green revolution is changing that calculus. A typical electric car, for example, requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car. In recent years, prices of several critical minerals have skyrocketed, incentivizing producers to go exploring in remote places like the deep sea. 

“Deep-sea mining will be a strategic move for mankind to meet its development needs in this century,” Zhou Ping of the China Geological Survey wrote in 2016.

The ISA is now facing pressure to issue rules for extraction, freeing up companies like China Minmetals to put their new technologies to work at a commercial scale. And when it does — which could be as soon as next year — analysts say Chinese companies will be ready to pounce.

China Minmetals and other Chinese companies, after all, already dominate terrestrial supplies of critical minerals, including rare earths, cobalt and nickel. As the hunt for minerals goes underwater, Chinese government analysts have made clear that cost will be no object as Chinese firms try to elbow out the competition. Control over mineral supply chains gives Chinese manufacturers a decisive advantage in scaling up production of new products like electric vehicles, which are poised to compete with American cars on the world market.

The United States and its partners, by contrast, have been caught on the back foot when it comes to China’s stranglehold on the critical mineral supply chain. With the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States intensifying, many Western observers say the U.S. can’t afford to lose the scramble for the seabed. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freymann, Eyck.“The Ocean Edge.” The Wire China, November 6, 2022.

The Author