Opinion | How the US can set standards on international deep-sea mineral mining

On land, China has used its power to drive mining and build processing infrastructure at a scale and pace unfathomable in Western markets. But polymetallic nodules in the deep sea offer an opportunity to flip this script. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which governs the use of these resources, operates by consensus of 168 countries plus the European Union. This is drastically different from the influence China enjoys on land.

While today, the US does not have voting rights within the ISA, many of its allies do, balancing adversaries on the international scene. By supporting responsible sourcing of these minerals and the means to process them domestically, the US not only can secure its mineral independence, but also uphold robust environmental and labour standards.

Critical minerals have become important for modern economies and the defence forces of many countries. Consequently, many countries have tightened their related trade policies. Producing 80 per cent and 60 per cent of the world’s gallium and germanium, respectively, China responded to US semiconductor trade restrictions with restrictions of its own in 2023 – picking and choosing which companies can import these critical minerals required for high-speed computer chips and a variety of defence and renewable energy applications.
On December 8, 2022, workers produce graphene lubricating oil at a workshop in Hegang, Heilongjiang province, an area known for its abundant graphite resources. Photo: Xinhua
Later that year, China followed up with another one-two punch of export restrictions for graphite needed for lithium-ion battery production used in products ranging from cars to mobile phones.
The country is now welcoming metal processing collaboration with Russian companies as the economic impact of Western sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine encouraged Moscow to rethink how it gets its products to market.

The US and its allies need to find new supplies of these minerals and the deep sea floor may provide the answer. The Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific is the main area of economic interest, estimated to hold more cobalt, manganese and nickel than all known land deposits combined.

While the ISA which governs these resources has been successful in issuing and regulating exploration contracts since the early 2000s, mining regulations have yet to be adopted.

US senator Lisa Murkowski speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 10, 2023. Murkowski is a leading proponent of the US joining UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Photo: Reuters

With an increased frequency and heightened level of detail in negotiations, the secretary general of the ISA has described commercial mining as “inevitable”. The ISA has defined a road map towards adopting the final code by 2025.

The ISA and deep-sea mining is another race in great power competition, yet the US has not even reached the starting line. China, a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and pioneer investor in the space, among France, Japan, India and others, has considerable influence at the ISA.
China currently holds the most exploration contracts of any country and is the biggest financial contributor to the ISA. While the US is able to attend ISA gatherings as an observer, it has not yet ratified UNCLOS, thus lacking full rights within the ISA and therefore little influence over deep-sea mining regulations.

While the US has been on the periphery of deep-sea mining for years, there are promising signs that Washington is moving in the right direction. The ratification of UNCLOS is an essential step, as it would guarantee US membership at the ISA and enable Washington to balance out Beijing’s rule-making position.


The underwater robots maintaining China’s first home-made semi-submersible oil platform

The underwater robots maintaining China’s first home-made semi-submersible oil platform

Furthermore, the US could sponsor companies to conduct exploration and even mining activities. This past year saw American senators from both sides of the aisle introducing a resolution urging the US to accede to the treaty.

The US could also partner with allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region to ensure their views on environmental thresholds and financial aspects are included in the final rules, as well as construct processing infrastructure required to convert deep-sea minerals into high purity products for clean tech and defence manufacturing.

To this end, Congress instructed the US Defence Department to submit a report on the domestic capability of processing minerals on the sea floor. Some companies have expressed interest in locating deep sea mineral refining infrastructure in Texas.

At present, the US stands at a dangerous precipice. China is restricting access to key land-based minerals for defence and green energy technologies, electric vehicles, telecommunications and other essential products.

While deep -sea mining offers a chance for the US and other nations to shore up their supply chains, Beijing is rapidly working to become the first to market, codifying a favourable international regulatory regime. Unless Washington quickly acts to counter China, the US may quickly find itself under water.

James Borton is a non-resident senior fellow at Johns Hopkins/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground”

David Hessen is managing editor of the South China Sea NewsWire and a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

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