In the far corner of inner Mongolia, Chinese researchers are dressed like they are heading off to the Jurassic Park movie set. But in reality, they are mineral prospectors and scientists looking to discover the next big deposit of natural resources unknown to the world. From lush green steppes to the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, Chinese exploration companies are digging everywhere.
Despite the recent fall through of plans for deep-sea mapping and mineral exploration—a part of China’s deal proposed to the Pacific Island nations—the hunt for the next big reserve of rare metals and natural resources is speeding up. And China has realised the vulnerability of supply chains.
In 2019, China discovered 1.12 billion tonnes of geological reserves of oil, out of which 160 million tonnes could be recovered with current exploration technology. That same year, it discovered 764.42 billion cubic meters of shale gas, from which 183.84 billion cubic metres offered exploration potential.
China’s ‘interest’ in Pacific nations
During Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji, Beijing portrayed itself as a party listening to Pacific Islander’s concerns about climate change, but the reality is complicated.
In the Pacific, China dominates natural resource extraction, taking over half the total tonnage of minerals, timber and fish, according to The Guardian’s Pacific Project. But deep-sea exploration comes at a cost to the environment.
“China’s mineral, timber, fossil fuel, food and other imports from Pacific Island nations are staggering. They’re creating enormous challenges for sustainable development in the region,” says Bill Laurance of James Cook University.
According to the American Enterprise Institute, Chinese companies have invested $2 billion in Pacific mineral exploration over the past two decades. Add to that, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is part of Beijing’s vision to develop a natural resource supply chain in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. China has mobilised state and private sector entities to extend its strategic goals.
Exploring the Oceans
At the forefront of mineral exploration in the Pacific is the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA), which acts as a coordinating entity between scientific research and international organisations.
In 2001, COMRA signed an exclusive contract with the International Sea Authority (ISA)—a Jamaica-based United Nations intergovernmental body that approves contracts for undersea mineral exploration—to explore the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the northeast Pacific. It also later signed new contracts with ISA in 2011 and 2014 to explore polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.
China’s deep-sea ambitions aren’t limited to the Pacific. In 2015, Chen Lianzeng, deputy director of China’s State Oceanic Administration, pitched to the Narendra Modi government the idea of exploring the Indian Ocean for its rich seabed deposits. However, the project seems to have fallen through the cracks as geopolitics over the Belt and Road Initiative strained India and China’s bilateral relationship.
At least until 2017, Jialong, China’s manned submersible probe, was seen conducting exploratory missions in the northwestern Indian Ocean.
After failing to progress in deep-sea exploration in the Indian Ocean, China’s mining operations have gone ahead with full steam in the Pacific region. A news article about “Dayang No. 1” ship returning from exploration in the Pacific said, “the rich resource and environmental data and physical samples obtained from this voyage are of great significance to my country’s scientific development and utilisation of seabed resources to enhance our country’s strategic resource support capabilities.”
Even in India’s immediate neighbourhood, Myanmar, China has extensive mining exploration operations where the PLA-linked NORINCO (China North Industries Corporation) is working with the local junta on the Letpadaung copper mine. The mining project has also been criticised for destroying the environment in the region.
But these efforts to find new mineral deposits are unfolding on the mainland as well.
Mines in the mainland
China’s nuclear authority recently announced on their WeChat account the discovery of “industrial-grade deposits of Uranium” increasing China’s estimated reserve by 10-fold. The finding puts China’s Uranium reserves at par with Australia, according to the announcement.
China has had to rely on Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia to supply uranium. But Beijing knows that it needs to secure uranium supply for its long-term strategic roles.
The nuclear authority’s research team used a new technique to extend the exploration depth to 3,000 meters, six times deeper than most of the country’s uranium mines. The uranium stockpile is crucial for China’s growing energy needs as well as the nuclear weapons programme. The recent open-source revelations tell us about China’s rapid expansion of the latter.
There is a sci-fi element to finding the minerals, but underneath lies the realpolitik of sustaining one’s economy as competition with the United States intensifies. The failure to sign a deal with the Pacific is a setback for China’s deep-sea ambitions, but that won’t stop the military-industrial complex from finding new opportunities.
China’s mining industry, backed by the State, will continue to look for ways to exploit vast resources trapped underneath the sea—from the Arctic to the Pacific.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)