Cobalt Conundrum: India’s Deep-Sea Mining Push Challenges China’s Dominance, Sparks Tensions With Sri Lanka – Analysis


India is rushing to get permission to explore a cobalt-rich underwater mountain located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. However, there are other countries interested in the same area. Sri Lanka is also looking to mine precious minerals there, adding to the competition. Cobalt is a critical mineral used in rechargeable batteries for smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. It also plays a key role in making alloys for jet engines, gas turbines and cutting tools. Additionally, cobalt is used in medical implants and as a catalyst in the chemical industry.

The urgent application to explore the cobalt-rich underwater mountain is driven by concerns about China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. China already controls much of the world’s cobalt supply, which worries officials and analysts who shared their thoughts with Al-Jazeera. This has prompted India to react quickly.

India Eyes AN Seamount

In January, India asked the International Seabed Authority (ISA), headquartered in Jamaica, for permission to explore the cobalt-rich Afanasy Nikitin Seamount (AN Seamount). The ISA is an autonomous world body that was set up under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A seamount is a volcanic activity-induced underwater mountain and is known to be rich in marine life. Similar to land volcanoes, seamounts can be active, extinct, or dormant.

The AN Seamount is a large underwater structure in the Central Indian Basin. It is 400 km long and 150 km wide and is situated about 3,000 km from the Indian coast. From a depth of around 4,800 metres, the AN Seamount rises around 1,200 metres high. Surveys conducted about 20 years ago show it is rich in cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper deposits.

Claiming Exclusive Rights

Countries have exclusive rights up to 200 nautical miles (approximately 370 km) from their shores, including the sea bed. Some ocean-bordering countries may have a natural extension of land that goes beyond this 200-mile limit, called the continental shelf. To claim this extended area, a country must provide detailed scientific evidence, including underwater maps and surveys, to the ISBA. If the claim is accepted, the country gains the right to explore and use the resources in that extended area.

Typically, claims to the continental shelf do not go beyond 350 nautical miles from the coast. However, countries along the Bay of Bengal can use different criteria to extend their claims. For instance, Sri Lanka has claimed beyond 200 nautical miles. Whether they will be awarded this claim is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, India has made a claim for exploration in the area due to concerns about Chinese activity. An official told The Hindu reported that, failing to make a claim now could have future consequences. If an area is not officially recognized as part of a country’s continental shelf, it is deemed ‘high sea’ and is open for any country to request exploration permission from the ISA.

High Seas Mineral Rights

To start extracting minerals, interested countries must first apply for an exploration licence from the ISA. These rights apply to parts of the open ocean, meaning areas where no country can claim ownership of the air, surface, or seabed. About 60% of the world’s seas are open ocean space and are thought to be rich in minerals. However, the costs and difficulties of extracting these resources are very high. No country in the world has yet carried out commercial extraction of resources from the open ocean.

India’s Mining Application

However, India’s exploration plans may face obstacles from another UNCLOS-linked body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which determines the boundaries of a country’s continental shelf. This is basically the submerged edge of a continent, extending from the shoreline to the continental slope, and usually ending at a steep drop-off and is rich in marine life and resources.

India also paid $500,000 to the ISA for its application. In this application, India expressed its intention to carry out detailed studies on the geophysics, geology, biology, oceanography and environment of the proposed area over the next 15 years.

India’s Exploration Stalled

The commission mentioned that the area India applied for, which is rich in cobalt and ferromanganese crusts, is completely within a region that Sri Lanka has already submitted to the commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

The ISA shared a note with Al Jazeera, stating that it had asked India to respond to the issue of overlapping territorial claims. However, on March 12, India informed it that it could not respond in time for the ISA to review its comments during the 29th Session of the Legal and Technical Commission, which is evaluating the application. Because of this, the ISA note says, India’s application has been “put on hold”. The ISA will review the application again once India provides a response.

Sri Lanka Stakes Its Claim

In 2009, Sri Lanka had sought to expand its continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles. The UN body has not yet made a decision on Sri Lanka’s request. If approved, Sri Lanka’s nautical boundaries would extend to include the AN Seamount. 

The CLCS, which reviews countries’ claims for extended continental shelf boundaries, has approved similar requests in the past. For instance, Pakistan, Australia and Norway have all gained rights to maritime areas extending beyond 200 nautical miles from their coasts.

In 2010, India responded to Sri Lanka’s submission to the CLCS without opposing it. However, in 2022, India changed its stance—arguing that Sri Lanka’s claims could harm India’s interests—and requested the commission not to entertain Sri Lanka’s submission.

India’s Stand Against China

Analysts say that New Delhi is not most worried about Sri Lanka. Its primary concern lies elsewhere. According to Al-Jazeera, a maritime expert who is now a senior official in the Indian judiciary and wishes to remain anonymous, said that India’s claim is not about starting exploration right away. Instead, it is about securing its presence and stake before China gets involved.

China, Germany and South Korea have agreements with the ISA to explore different areas of the Indian Ocean for deep-sea resources. The AN Seamount is located far beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone. This strengthens India’s argument to the ISA.

India’s Deep-Sea Mining Goal

KV Thomas, retired scientist from the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, agreed with the senior judiciary official that China played a major role in influencing India’s decision. He shared this view with the Al-Jazeera. Thomas, too, mentioned that India’s deep-sea mining efforts were still in its early stages. However, the country has shown its determination in recent years.

In 2021, India started a Deep Ocean Mission to explore resources in the deep sea, with a budget of $500 million for a five-year period. In 2023, the Indian government announced that, as part of the Deep Ocean Mission, it was creating a manned submersible for deep-sea mining. This submersible will be used to explore and collect polymetallic nodules, known as manganese nodules, which are rock formations containing important minerals, such as cobalt, from the ocean floor.

Currently, China controls 70% of the world’s cobalt and 60% of its lithium and manganese, which are other important minerals, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. However, India aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 and needs these minerals to support its clean energy economy.

Girish Linganna

Girish Linganna is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected]

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