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Strategic advantages of deep sea mining

Outer space and oceanic bodies could very well become the new frontiers for extracting metals and  minerals even as the world faces the spectre of  dwindling resources in the none too distant a future. Surprisingly, man has a better insight into the dynamics of outer space than the intricacies of the oceans with which he has been leading  a cheek in bowl existence for thousands of years now. But then while the idea of extracting resources from planetary bodies is still in the rudimentary conceptual stage, the sea bed mining technology seems to be fast evolving  towards a workable proposition though its economic viability is still far from clear. Not surprisingly, the International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA), the UN sponsored regulator for mining the global oceanic bodies, has signed quite a  few contracts with the private enterprises keen on exploring the ocean floor for precious metals. All said and done, efforts made so far to extract metallic resources from ocean floor have not yielded desired results as the technology of deep sea mining remains far from mature. Of course, the exact estimate of resources available  in oceanic depths is still not known with certainty. According to US Geological Survey, the global oceanic bodies may harbour nearly a thousand times more than the current proven recoverable onshore rare earth deposits.

Against this backdrop,  India, not willing to be left behind in the race for deep sea exploration for rare earth minerals and metals, has announced an ambitious plan for ocean mining to meet its futuristic needs of minerals including titanium, copper and plutonium. As it is, India’s keenness to go in for deep see mining is in line with the policy initiative of creating a stockpile of “strategically critical metals” to compete with China’s complete domination over production and  marketing of rare earth minerals and clinch bilateral agreements with technologically advanced countries for the exploration and mining of  deep sea for rare earth minerals. Japan, which has covered substantial ground in developing the technology of deep sea mining could be an ideal partner for India in this strategic area. In July this year, India’s Minister of State for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences, Ashwani Kumar stated that deep sea mining is an area of special focus for the Indian government. He said India was not merely looking at exploring the ocean bed just for commercial profits but also with an eye on deriving strategic advantages. ”Countries like China  have taken to deep sea mining with a strategic purpose. They are maintaining their presence in the high seas by claiming to undertake deep sea mining,” notes Kumar. While outlining the plan for assembling the technological elements required for deep sea mining, Kumar pointed that  it has been  decided to allocate new vessels to the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) located in Chennai and enhance the human resources requirements in this critical area to ensure India stands among the top league nations with the capability to extract resources from the oceanic depths. “India has  to create its strategic presence in the field of deep sea mining. China, the US, South Korea and Russia are the only few countries that have ventured into the area,” stated Kumar.

According to Kumar, India has the capability to mine the ocean bed at a depth of 6,000-metres using the vessel Sagar Nidhi.There is also a plan to induct two more ships—one acquired from South Korea and the other being built at Surat to augment Indian capabilities in the area of deep sea mining. Significantly, India was granted  mining rights  to several blocks in south west Indian ocean by the International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA). However, inaction on the part of India in scaling up the technology sturdy enough to accomplish deep sea mining and the failure to sort out overlapping maritime boundary issues, resulted in India surrendering the ocean blocks. Way back in 1987, ISBA had granted India a pioneer investor status.  In keeping with the global trend in deep sea mining, India is now focusing on the technology aimed at hydrothermal vents as source of metals and minerals instead of poly-metallic nodules. Hydrothermal vents are area on the ocean floor where water heated by volcanic activities under the seabed gushes out.

In July this year, ISBA granted South Korea  the exclusive right  to exploit an area of 10,000 sq.km, located around 2,5000 kms south west of Sri Lanka for metals and minerals from 2013 to 2027. According to sources in South Korea’s Maritime Ministry, it would be possible to produce minerals worth more than US$300-million a year from this enterprise. Obviously, South Korean scientists had explored the area from 2009-201. For the resources poor South Korea, the successful extraction of metals including gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead from the depths of the ocean could mean a major turning point in meeting its vital raw materials need.

Of course, there is a concern in India over the China getting exclusive rights to explore 10,000 -sq.km of sea bed in south west Indian ocean, off the coast  of Africa. For it is felt that China will not only strengthen its commercial interests through this venture but will expand its strategic reach in the Indian ocean region through deep sea mining. Prior to this, in 2011, China had obtained rights to prospect a 75,000 sq.km of area of international sea bed for poly metallic nodules.

Indian ocean is a vital water body of importance for India’s maritime strategy as well as energy security. Incidentally, the bulk of the world’s oil supply from the Middle East pass through this region. About 40% of  the global trade passes through this  oceanic body including 70% of the total traffic of oil and petroleum products. Not surprisingly, recently the Indian navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma made it clear that Indian ocean would be a priority for the Indian Navy. The commissioning of the naval air base INS Baaz on the Greater Nicobar island, located at the mouth of Malacca Strait , is expected to further tighten Indian Navy’s grip on the Indian ocean region which China is trying to dominate.

Radhakrishna Rao is a freelancer specialising in defence and aerospace issues. Views expressed are personal

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Radhakrishna Rao

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