Could the world’s deep seas become China’s mining frontier?

Stephen Chen
·3-min read

Chinese researchers say they have identified a number of “strategically important” deep sea mineral deposits as part of a decade-long survey of the world’s sea floors.

The researchers conducted a series of government-funded surveys from 2011 to 2020 and located potentially high-yield deposits of various essential industrial minerals from nickel to rare earths, according to a paper published in the Chinese-language Bulletin of Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry last week.

A few of the deposits were in the South China Sea, but most were in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, far from China.

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Nevertheless, the intensity of Chinese prospecting activities in these distant areas “has surpassed that of other countries”, said the researchers led by Shi Xuefa from the First Institute of Oceanography at the Ministry of Natural Resources.

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China’s rapid economic development over the last few decades has led to a huge demand for imported resources, such as high-quality iron ore from Australia and Brazil to make steel for infrastructure.

In recent years, China’s attention has turned to untapped resources under the oceans. The amount of rare earths on the sea floor alone is thought to dwarf those on land by 1,000 times, according to one estimate by Japanese researchers at the University of Tokyo.

But much of the sea floor is uncharted and exploiting any reserves requires precise understanding of the location and size of the deposits.

In the paper, Shi and his colleagues said China had filled in some of those gaps.

For example, the survey found reserves of nickel – a metal that could boost the performance of electric car batteries – tended to be found on the sides undersea mountains rather than on the peaks or in basins.

The surveys were allowed under authorisation from the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority based in Jamaica.

The agreements between the UN agency and Beijing give China access to more areas for mineral prospecting than any other country.

The terms allow China to exploit the most valuable deposits in return for doing the surveys.

According to the researchers, China’s future deep sea mining activities would likely be focused in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the northwestern and southwestern Indian Ocean, the central Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.

In these areas, Chinese research vessels have discovered a large number of previously unknown “chimneys” pumping mineral-rich material to the sea floor from the depths of the Earth. Some deposits contained ores of high enough quality for commercial exploitation for over two decades, according to the study.

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But building large mining facilities in these remote, sometimes contentious waters would be a challenge. India has already raised concerns about Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean, including the Chinese military’s considerable naval fleet to protect its commercial liners and other interests in the area.

The United States has also sent spy planes to monitor Chinese research vessels mapping and planting devices in seabeds near Guam.

Beijing has some ambitious projects for deep sea exploration. It has built manned submersibles that can reach some of the world’s greatest depths and is developing a deep sea station and unmanned sea floor base operated by robots.

With the help of floating nuclear power stations, the technology is expected to pave way for the commercial exploitation of natural resources from several thousand metres under the ocean.

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