Next World Battleground: Deep-Sea Floor

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The deep seabed has been considered a treasure trove of valuable minerals for more than a century and a half. 

The discovery of iron-manganese deposits on the deep ocean floor occurred in the Kara Sea in 1868.  Between 1873-76, the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Challenger, during a trip around the world, recovered small blackish-brown balls, rich in manganese and iron among other metals. They were later named “manganese nodules.”

Until recently, however, the mineral wealth of the deep seabed was largely theoretical. Mining companies, typically sponsored by their national governments, have attempted to exploit the mineral resources of the deep ocean for more than fifty years, but to date have showed little success.

That situation is about to change. Advances in mining technology and deep-sea exploration are about to open up, for better or for worse, the deep ocean seabed to commercial exploitation. Chinese companies, with the support of Beijing, have moved aggressively to capitalize on the opportunity. 

There is a lot at stake here. Take cobalt, a critical strategic mineral, for example. Cobalt-based chemicals have far-ranging applications and are critical in the production of lithium-ion batteries. Terrestrial deposits of cobalt are relatively rare. Deep seabed deposits of cobalt, however, are believed to be eight times more plentiful

China dominates cobalt production

Currently eight of the 14 largest cobalt producers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the source of 70% of the world’s cobalt, are controlled by Chinese companies, many of them state enterprises. China currently produces 80% of the world’s supply of cobalt chemicals. 

China’s interest in the mineral resources of the deep seabed is part of a larger strategy that has seen Chinese companies secure important mineral resources around the globe. Over the last two decades, China’s extraordinary growth has led Chinese companies to acquire over 16 million acres of overseas land in the agricultural, forestry, and mining sectors. By comparison, U.K. companies currently hold around four million acres, U.S. companies hold over two million acres and Japanese companies hold around one million acres. 

To date, five of the 30 contracts issued for deep-seabed mining have gone to Chinese companies. More than any other country. The licenses cover an area of roughly 92,000 square miles: a zone roughly approximating the size of New Zealand. 

China has also been aggressively pursuing deep-sea mining technology. In 2015, China’s CRRC Group, for example, acquired SMD, the UK’s leading manufacturer of deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated ocean trenching equipment. 

Technology could threaten U.S. Navy

Those actions have triggered alarm bells in Washington. Much of the technology necessary to exploit deep seabed mineral deposits has dual use military functions as well. That technology could pose a threat to U.S. naval operations on the high seas, especially to America’s submarine fleet.

Recently, I sat down with Alex Gray to talk about Chinese aims to exploit the mineral wealth of the deep seabed, how those aims fit both into China’s broader strategy to secure long-term supplies of strategic minerals and in the broader framework of Sino-American commercial and military rivalry.

Alex Gray is a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council. Gray served as Director for Oceania & Indo-Pacific Security at the White House National Security Council (NSC) from 2018 to 2019.

JM: The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is charged with regulating all mineral related activity in the areas of the deep seabed outside the national jurisdiction of maritime states. How extensive is deep-sea mining activity and how effective has the ISA been in regulating it?

AG: Commercial deep-sea mining is quickly moving away from the exploratory phase and will likely become a reality in the next several years. The Pacific Island of Nauru recently notified the ISA of its intention to support deep-sea mining efforts by a commercial enterprise, forcing the ISA to codify deep-sea mining regulations or allow whatever national regulations are in place at the time to serve as the governance regime.

The operative question as it pertains to the ISA is whether membership by the United States (the U.S. is not currently a member, as it is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) is in Washington’s interest. 

Currently, the U.S. has in place sufficient bilateral agreements with countries who have an interest in deep-sea mining (including Russia and China) to avoid the necessity of joining the ISA, which remains a deeply flawed body. Like many other international organizations, the ISA pursues a redistributionist approach to natural resources policy that would disadvantage U.S. companies while failing to advance the U.S. interest in access to deep-sea mining opportunities. 

Economic exploitation a concern

JM: The deep seabed has long been considered to hold a treasure trove of valuable resources, both conventional, like hydrocarbons, to exotic materials like methane hydrates or polymetallic manganese nodules. How practical is the economic exploitation of the deep seabed presently?

AG: The technology needed to harness these resources is entering the commercialization phase, as exploration of the deep seabed has continued apace. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the ISA has issued nearly 30 contracts for mining-related exploration on the seabed, but the technology to commercially mine at considerable depths has remained nascent. 

Some countries have already begun mining on a smaller scale within their continental shelves, but these efforts (like in Papua New Guinea) are at relatively shallow depths. It will likely take some time for the deepest areas of the ocean, particularly the Pacific, to be technologically reachable for deep-sea mining. 

JM: In addition to its interest in the deep seabed, Beijing has declared itself a “near Arctic power,” and has announced ambitious plans to expand its activities in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Concurrently, Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative is investing heavily in infrastructure projects throughout the world. Is there an overarching strategy that binds these different activities together?

AG: The Chinese are pursuing an “all-domain” strategy to attain economic and, eventually, military dominance in areas as diverse as cyberspace, outer space, the Polar regions and the deep seabed. 

Beijing believes in the metric known as “Comprehensive National Power” to judge the relative success of a country on the world stage. Efforts to create a Polar Silk Road, for instance, or to construct new Antarctic bases at strategically significant locations (such as the highest ice feature on the continent), all contribute to China’s economic strength while also enhancing its military capabilities. 

As an example, Antarctica is both a potentially rich source for rare earth elements, as often noted in Chinese scientific and strategic journals, and, militarily, offers important advantages for China in outer space because of its location. (JM: Note the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and the Madrid protocol of 1991, permanently bans extractive mining on the continent.)

As the United States and its partners grapple with China’s advances across domains, it is important to recognize the fusion of economic and military interests in Chinese thinking and to appreciate the scale and ambition of Beijing’s quest for global advantage. 

‘Military struggle in the deep sea’

JM: Beyond the access to minerals, are there military repercussions to China’s exploration of the deep seabed and the quest for its resources? If so, what are they?

AG: The military implications are substantial. China’s premier military journal, Science of Strategy, has openly written of the “military struggle in the deep sea.” The Ministry of National Defense identified the deep-sea as a domain that China must focus “confrontation activities” on, alongside cyberspace and outer space. 

As an operational matter, China’s activity on the deep seabed poses a challenge to the longstanding U.S. advantage in undersea warfare. By increasing the Chinese submarine force’s knowledge of the ocean-floor, this exploration appreciably strengthens Beijing’s conventional and nuclear undersea capabilities at the U.S. Navy’s expense. 

JM: Is the deep seabed going to become another arena for great power competition? How should the U.S. respond, economically, militarily and diplomatically, to China’s quest to exploit the deep seabed?

AG: China has shown a desire to expand its dominance, economic and military, to domains like Antarctica that have traditionally been reserved for scientific endeavor. That mentality is likely to extend to the deep seabed, particularly as commercial mining opportunities expand. 

The U.S. and its allies must recognize the strategic challenge and act accordingly. Coordinated responses on the naval side are required, including from allies and partners like Japan, Australia, Taiwan and India. 

The U.S. should also encourage private companies to invest in the technology needed to harness the deepest ocean resources through tax incentives and, if necessary, industrial policy tools like Title III of the Defense Production Act and the Manufacturing Technology Program at the Defense Department. 

It is imperative that the U.S. and its partners remain at the cutting edge, economically and militarily, in this emerging domain of competition.

China ignores law of the sea

JM: The U.S. is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) under which the ISA operates. Earlier you noted that Washington can use existing bilateral agreements to work around any limitations imposed by not being a signatory to the UNCLOS treaty. Would the U.S. find it easier to deal with China in the commercial exploitation of the deep seabed if it was a party to the UNCLOS treaty?

AG: China has repeatedly shown it does not abide by UNCLOS or the rulings of international tribunals relating to the Law of the Sea. The ostensible purpose of UNCLOS is to manage international rivalry at sea, but this is impossible when our principal strategic rival refuses to abide by a treaty to which it is a signatory. 

The United States has sufficient economic interests that are threatened by the ISA and UNCLOS writ large that it does not justify joining a treaty that our principal competitor refuses to follow. In terms of most of UNCLOS’s conduct at sea requirements, the U.S. already complies without being a formal signatory.

JM: Russia is an Arctic power and has unveiled ambitious plans in that region. Both China and Russia have announced that they will work together to create a maritime Polar Silk Route connecting Europe and Asia via a northeast passage across Russia’s Arctic seas. How active is Russia in the deep-sea mining arena and what impact does this have on U.S. national security?

AG: Like China, Russia has demonstrated through its behavior in the Polar regions a propensity for economically and military malign activity in contested domains. Russia has shown significant interest in harnessing the Arctic’s potential economic potential, and the deep seabed is an important component of that. As with China, the U.S. must pay close attention to Moscow’s ambitions and the implications for American military and economic interests in the Far North. 

JM: Thank you



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