China wins right to explore seabed off Africa

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2011, 12:00am


China has become one of the first countries to win rights to explore the seabed for mineral deposits, as Beijing pushes ahead with a global search for resources to feed its fast-growing economy.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organisation under the United Nations, has approved China's plan to look for polymetallic sulphide deposits in a 10,000 square kilometre area of seabed in the Indian Ocean. A licence has been granted for 15 years, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

China needs to map the seabed and identify suitable mining spots. In exchange, it will be given priority rights to mine these deposits. A contract is expected to be signed in November.

The deal makes China one of the first countries authorised under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to explore for polymetallic sulphides - one of the most valuable metallic mineral sources, found around volcanic springs on the ocean floor. Deposits are believed to contain large quantities of metals such as gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper.

According to a press release on the ISA's website similar rights were also awarded last month to two companies in Tonga and Nauru for the Pacific and to the Russian government for the mid-Atlantic ridge.

'The refined metals from these deposits will help China meet our increasing demand for resources,' Jin Jiancai, secretary general of China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Associated, was quoted by state media as saying.

Mainland marine experts said the deal marked Beijing's entry to an elite global club capable of tapping the rich resources in the deep sea.

'It is a cake too big for any country to claim a monopoly on but only a few countries are capable of having a slice,' said Professor Wang Xiutian, marine geophysicist with the Ocean University of China.

Wang said China had taken great strides in deep-sea exploration and in some areas was ahead of Western countries.

Last week it sent its first manned deep-sea submarine, Jiaolong, to a depth of 5,057 metres and it will test 7,000 metres next year.

China still faces many challenges in mining the Indian Ocean deposits because of its distance from the country and because some of the ocean floor is 3,000 metres deep. There are also many environmental risks, experts said. They believed it would take years for any meaningful drilling to take place.

'We should not start mining activities until we have solved the environmental issues. We may need to wait for years, if not decades, to see the first ship of ore arriving at a Chinese port,' said Han Xiqiu, a researcher with the State Oceanic Administration's Second Institute of Oceanography based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

To meet the surging demand for energy and resources, China has been investing heavily in deep-sea prospecting. In 2005, a government-sponsored expedition team found clues which led to the discovery of an enormous belt of polymetallic sulphides in a deep-sea rift south of Madagascar. Chinese scientists were thrilled as no other countries before had found anything in the region, Han said.

China sent advanced equipment and researchers to collect and analyse data. Their hard work finally paid off in persuading the ISA to grant Beijing the deal, she said.

The ISA, established under the authority of Unclos, has 162 member countries. Its mission is to co-ordinate activities on the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdictions.

Han said that China started 'decades behind developed countries' in deep-sea prospecting. It knew very little about polymetallic sulphides until recent years, while the US has been doing research on it for years.

China must give up its claim on 75 per cent of the region by 2026. It is also under the obligation to launch scientific and environmental research to further understanding and protection of the region.