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India’s ‘deep-sea mining’ capability gets a fillip

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 01, 2013

    Over the past few years, ‘deep sea-mining’ has been the subject of a lively debate among maritime analysts. With global appetite for minerals and rare metals growing, the competition for deep sea-spaces rich with poly-metallic nodules and hydrothermal deposits has been increasing. Much of the interest in deep-sea mining has been led by the discovery that poly-metallic sulphides – a great source of valuable minerals such as gold, silver and zinc - also contain valuable rare-earth metals, a commonly used ingredient in modern day electronic devices and gadgets. As a result, many countries have embarked upon a drive to upgrade their under-sea mineral exploration and extraction capabilities.

    Against this backdrop, the recent acquisition of India’s deep-sea exploration ship ‘SamudraRatnakar’ by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) is a noteworthy development. A state-of-the-art platform acquired from South Korea, the SamudraRatnakar is equipped with sophisticated deep-sea survey instruments like doppler profilers, multi-beam sonars, acoustic positioning systems, marine magnetometers and a marine data management system, which give it a qualitative edge over other survey ships.

    While its many features are meant to facilitate modern geo-scientific oceanographic research, the new ship’s chief attribute is its cutting-edge deep-sea exploration capability. With an impressive array of instruments and a modern on-board laboratory, the new ship represents a technological leap in India’s sea-mining prowess. It is worth noting that India already has a limited deep-sea exploration capability in the form of the SagarNidhi (a research vessel operated by the National Institute of Ocean Technology). The SamudraRatnakar, however, is far more advanced in its features and systems that enable a rigorous survey of the sea-bed, and an accurate analysis of the excavated material. Not surprisingly, it is being seen as an illustration of India's determination to be a serious player in deep sea mining and research.

    India is not the only nation with interests in sea-bed mining. By a predictable coincidence, China - which controls more than 95% of rare earth metals - also heads the list of states with a deep interest in deep-sea mineral exploration. Over the past decade, China has established a healthy lead over all its competitors and has the most sophisticated program in extracting valuable minerals from the sea-bed.

    The initiative that India is now displaying in deep-sea mining seems linked to China’s perceived ‘strategic-play’ in the Indian Ocean. In 2011, when the International Sea Bed Authority’s (ISBA’s) decided to allow the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) to undertake exploration for poly-metallic sulphides in a 10,000 sq. kms area in the south-west Indian Ocean it caused a flutter in the Indian strategic community, which saw the development as a geo-strategic gambit aimed at extending China's footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

    What did not draw much attention then was the fact that the COMRA’s exploration rights in the Indian Ocean were over and above its existing allocation in the Western Pacific. A 15-year contract with the seabed authority in 2001 had given China rights to explore 75,000 sqkms of seabed for poly-metallic nodules (small rocks containing metal ore – manganese, copper, cobalt, etc) in which it has shown rapid progress in extracting the minerals.

    This is significant because ISBA’s 2011 decision resulted in China establishing mining rights in two major oceanic systems that contain the world’s most important sea lines of communication. To be sure, China’s deep-sea exploration rights weren’tapparently acquired through any backroom maneuveres or use of geo-strategic clout. The license to explore the Western Indian Ocean sea-bed was, in major part, attributable to a concerted effort at scouting the seas and gathering evidence for the presence of mineral nodes on the sea bed. In fact, China’s mining rights in the IOR were given six years after a Chinese government-sponsored expedition team found clues of an enormous belt of poly-metallic sulphides in a deep-sea rift south of Madagascar.

    India’s recent efforts to be a serious player in the strategic arena of deep sea mining have resulted in the commissioning of a rare-earth mineral processing plant in Orissa, and a project to up-grade older exploration ships. ‘Deep-sea mining’ has now been officially recognised as a future frontier of scientific research, a notion first detailed in the vision plan outlined by a National Security Council policy paper in 2012. Interestingly, the policy document also covered the broader domain of ‘rare earths’, mandating the creation of a stockpile of ‘strategically critical input metals’. As a corollary, New Delhi has commenced a search for partners that it could combine forces with to bolster its efforts towards exploration and mining of rare minerals.

    One such agreement was concluded with Japan in November 2012. As part of the larger framework of Indo-Japan strategic collaboration, an agreement was signed for the exploration and production of rare earths, following which India is setting up a monazite processing plant in Orissa. Japan – the second largest consumer of rare earths -is driven by its anxiety of China’s monopolistic practices, and has been leading efforts to openup the market.

    A significant component of Tokyo’s new policy of regional integration is building capacity for extraction of rare earths. The new approach was much in evidence during Japan’s recent offer to Vietnam to assist in the construction of a Research and Technology Transfer Centre in Hanoi.Encouraged by Tokyo’s ‘rare earths diplomacy’, New Delhi is now said to be mulling over a proposal for deep-sea mining and production technology from Tokyo under the strategic dialogue framework, and the acquisition of more deep-sea exploration vessels.

    India's anxieties vis-a-vis Chinese deep sea mining capability are sharpened by Beijing's history of using of rare earths as a ‘bargaining chip’ to extract strategic concessions. Consider, for instance, the 2010 episode when China blocked Japan's supply of rare-earth minerals for two months over skirmishes relating to disputed territorial claims in the China Seas. So strong and pervasive has China’s ‘hard-bargaining’ tactics been with respect to rare earths, that in 2012 the World Trade Organization even created a panel to investigate its pernicious influence on the market.

    The latest addition to India's deep sea exploration capability must, however, be tempered with the reality of its efforts so far in this area. Despite being a "pioneer investor" in the Indian Ocean's mineral exploration and mining sector, and the allotment of 150,000 sq. km in the Central Indian Ocean Basin by the ISBA in 2002, India’s lack of initiative and action in deep-sea mining has been striking. Following years of exploratory inaction, mining rights in many of the blocks in the south-west Indian Ocean had to be surrendered to the ISBA.

    By a rough estimate, the total mass of nodules in the area allocated to India in the Indian Ocean is about 380 million metric tonnes. But merely having a deep sea exploration vessel will not be sufficient to find and extract the material. India will need trained scientists and onboard equipment operators and a focused action plan to get to the minerals at the bottom of the sea.

    While a start has undoubtedly been made, if India desires to seriously challenge China’s sea-bed mining superiority, it will need to develop its capability to explore for hydro-thermal sulphides deposits and the chance to extract valuable rare-earths. Until then China’s dominance in the field will continue to be a cause for concern for India.