China set to dominate deep-sea mining and grab treasure of rare metals

KINGSTON, Jamaica — When the 5,100-ton Dayang Hao, one of China’s most advanced deep-water expedition vessels, left port south of Shanghai two months ago, a red-and-white banner — the kind used to blast Communist Party exhortations — reminded the crew of their mission: “Strive, explore, contribute.”

The Dayang Hao was bound for a 28,500-square-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean between Japan and Hawaii where China has exclusive rights to prospect for lumpy, golf-ball-size rocks that are millions of years old and worth trillions of dollars.

It is China’s latest contract, won in 2019, to explore for “polymetallic nodules,” which are rich in manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper — metals needed for everything from electric cars to advanced weapons systems. They lie temptingly on the ocean floor, just waiting to be hoovered up.

Whether working deep at sea or on land at the headquarters of the United Nations’ seabed regulator here in Kingston, Beijing is striving to get a jump on the burgeoning industry of deep-sea mining.

The ROV KIEL 6000 explored the seafloor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone for a project examining the effects of polymetallic nodule mining on deep-sea ecosystems. The picture shows “nodule frames” for a repopulation experiment. (ROV Team/Geomar)

China already holds five of the 30 exploration licenses that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has granted to date — the most of any country — in preparation for the start of deep-sea mining as soon as 2025. When that happens, China will have exclusive rights to excavate 92,000 square miles of international seabed — about the size of the United Kingdom — or 17 percent of the total area currently licensed by the ISA.

Map shows licenses for deep sea mining

The ocean floor is shaping up to be the world’s next theater of global resource competition — and China is set to dominate it. The sea is believed to hold several times what land does of these rare metals, which are critical for almost all of today’s electronics, clean-energy products and advanced computer chips. As countries race to cut greenhouse gas emissions, demand for these minerals is expected to skyrocket.

When deep-sea mining begins, China — which already controls 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare-earth metals and produces three-quarters of all lithium-ion batteries — will extend its chokehold over emerging industries like clean energy. Mining will also give Beijing a potent new tool in its escalating rivalry with the United States. As a sign of how these resources could be weaponized, China in August started restricting exports of two metals that are key to U.S. defense systems.

A cobalt crust from the Bathymetrists Seamounts off the west coast of Africa contains rare-earth metals. (Jan Steffen/Geomar)

“If China can take the lead in seabed mining, it really has the lock on access to all the key minerals for the 21st-century green economy,” said Carla Freeman, senior expert for China at the United States Institute of Peace.

In the case of polymetallic nodules, that means sending robotic vehicles as deep as 18,000 feet to the vast, dark seafloor, where they will slowly vacuum up about four inches of seabed, then pump it up to a ship.

The area marked for mining, though less than 1 percent of the total international seabed, would still be huge. The 30 exploration contracts cover 540,000 square miles but are concentrated in an expanse of the Pacific called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Spanning 3,100 miles, it is wider than the contiguous United States and contains up to six times the cobalt and three times the nickel in all land-based reserves.

Map shows licenses for deep sea mining in the Clario-Clipperton Zone

In its quest to dominate this industry, China has focused its efforts on the Kingston-based ISA, housed in a weathered limestone building overlooking the Caribbean Sea. By wielding influence at an organization where it is by far the most powerful player — the United States is not a member of the ISA — Beijing has a chance to shape international rules to its advantage.

This approach is key to Xi Jinping’s bid for global preeminence. China’s strongest leader in decades, Xi is set on transforming China into a global power that is no longer beholden to the West, including by becoming a maritime power able to compete militarily with the United States.

“If you want to become a global power, you have to maintain the security of your sea lanes and interests. So becoming a maritime power is inevitable,” said Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University.

The United States has done little to respond to China’s moves in the deep sea. It is only an observer at the ISA, meaning it’s at risk of being sidelined as the rules for this future industry are being made. Unlike China, U.S. companies do not have any exploration contracts with the ISA, and critics say Washington lacks a clear plan on how to compete in this new industry.

“The logic is that if we don’t make the rules, they will,” said Isaac Kardon, the author of “China’s Law of the Sea” and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“These are frontier areas of international law where there’s not an obvious regime, and it’s especially appealing because the U.S. isn’t there,” he said. “It’s an obvious front in whatever this great-power competition is.”

China’s ‘slowly and surely’ approach pays off

People in Qingdao, in China’s Shandong province, greet the staff and crew of the deep-sea survey ship Xiangyang Hong 09 in July 2012. (Yu Fangping/ImagineChina/AP)

It was almost 9 on a mid-July evening when Gou Haibo, tall and lean in a dark suit, emerged from more than six hours of closed-door talks at ISA headquarters.

The Chinese delegation member stopped to smoke a cigarette in a garden outside the main hall, where he would present his country’s case on the issue at hand: how to open up the international seabed, which covers more than half the planet, to industrial mining.

The ISA is under pressure to come up with rules after the Pacific island of Nauru, partnering with Canadian firm The Metals Company, in 2021 triggered a provision that requires the organization to allow mining within two years, even if a regulatory code is not in place.

ISA member countries must come to an agreement on a final code or face the possibility of mining proceeding unrestricted. For now, further discussion of the “two-year rule” has been shunted to next year.

China, according to Gou, wants things to move faster. He took issue with the group’s declaration, after days of negotiation, that countries “intend to” agree on a set of regulations by the end of 2025.

“The Chinese delegation still prefers the original term — ‘commits,’” Gou told the meeting. Otherwise, he said, “it seems a little unclear what we are going to do in the coming months or in the coming years.”

China’s stance was an example of the persistence with which its diplomats work to be heard and to direct proceedings at the ISA.

Dong Xiaojun, China’s ambassador to Jamaica, attends a 2015 meeting of the International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. By wielding influence at the ISA, Beijing has a chance to shape international rules to its advantage. (David McFadden/AP)

Delegates and former ISA staffers describe Beijing as wielding quiet influence through various channels, including by hosting workshops and dinners lubricated by baijiu, the notoriously strong Chinese liquor.

Sandor Mulsow, who held senior positions at the ISA from 2013 to 2019, said China has a “very strong and long-term agenda.”

“China always works very slowly and surely, and they keep going,” he said.

As of 2021, China became the biggest contributor to the organization’s administrative budget, the ISA said. Beijing regularly donates to various ISA funds and, in 2020, announced a joint training center with the ISA in the Chinese port city of Qingdao.

“It’s quite clear that when China speaks, everyone tends to listen and tries to accommodate,” said Pradeep Singh, an expert on ocean governance with the Research Institute for Sustainability in Germany who has been attending ISA meetings since 2018.

In July, the Chinese delegation showed up in force. It included representatives from the country’s foreign and natural resources ministries, its permanent mission to the ISA, and the three state-run companies that control the country’s five exploration contracts.

At a time when Western participation in the U.N. system is declining, Chinese scholars and officials have been pushing for a bigger role at organizations like the ISA — heeding Xi’s call to improve Beijing’s international clout. On the 52-member staff of the ISA’s secretariat, which administers the organization, two positions are held by Chinese nationals. A commission on legal affairs and a committee on financial matters include one Chinese national each. Experts nominated by China are always in those bodies, according to Secretary General Michael Lodge.

“If you have people in those positions, you’re going to know everything that’s going on,” said James McFarlane, head of the Office of Resources and Environmental Monitoring at the ISA from 2009 to 2011.

Asked whether China exercises more influence because of its financial contributions, Lodge said: “Every state participates to the extent that it decides to do so.”

China’s Foreign Ministry, the Chinese Embassy in Jamaica and the three Chinese contractors did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. Delegates at the meetings in Kingston declined to speak on the record.

But experts who are watching closely say that Beijing is being strategic in its approach.

“China is probably the single most-active country in the ISA,” said Peter Dutton, a professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. “One of the things that the Chinese are doing very effectively is engaging in the rulemaking, and writing regulations that can favor their interests. They’re out there ahead of us, and that’s one area we need to be concerned about.”

Mastering technology, minimizing environmental risk

The Xiangyang Hong 09, carrying a crewed deep-sea submersible named Jialong, docks in the port city of Qingdao, in Shandong province, in July 2012. In 2020, China announced a joint training center with the International Seabed Authority, to be housed in Qingdao. (Yang Tongyu/ImagineChina/AP)

For China, deep-sea mining has never been entirely about natural resources. It has also been about overturning the traditional international order dominated by the West.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as researchers realized the extent of the ocean’s mineral wealth, the question over who has a right to those resources became ideological.

Rich countries like the United States wanted to operate on a first-come, first-served basis while China, a developing country, sided with Global South nations and said the spoils should be shared. China’s side won, and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), agreed upon in 1982, has been ratified by most countries. The United States recognizes the convention but has not ratified it, in part because of opposition to its provisions on seabed mining.

Under the convention, the ISA was established in 1994 and charged with overseeing deep-sea mining. U.S. critics say acceding to the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty on the high seas by handing power to the ISA.

The ROV KIEL 6000’s expedition in 2019 to the seafloor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone finds a polymetallic nodule on which a coral grows. (ROV Team/Geomar)

China was one of the first countries to send a permanent mission to the ISA. The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper declared UNCLOS a victory against “maritime hegemony,” while the head of China’s State Oceanic Administration called it the “formation of a new international maritime order.”

China joined the deep-sea race and has spent the past few decades steadily investing more in technology and equipment, catching up with its Western rivals — who had been far ahead — and, in some areas, surpassing them.

In 2001, the country’s first deep-sea mining contractor, China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, or COMRA, won China’s first license to explore for polymetallic nodules.

China is now home to at least 12 institutions dedicated to deep-sea research — one of them, a sprawling campus in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, plans to hire 4,000 people by 2025. Dozens of colleges have sprung up to focus on marine sciences.

In a speech in 2016, Xi talked about accessing the “treasures” of the ocean and ordered his country to “master key technologies for entering the deep sea.”

Aboard the research vessel Maersk Launcher in 2010, Katie Allen, an environmental associate for Canadian firm The Metals Company, shows nodules containing nickel, cobalt and manganese taken from the ocean floor. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

At the heart of the debate about deep-sea mining is whether this can be done in a way that doesn’t harm ocean ecosystems and species. Scientists say this kind of activity on the seafloor will destroy a library of information important to medical breakthroughs, understanding the origins of life, and other advances.

Environmentalists say deep-sea mining will disturb the world’s largest natural carbon sink, which absorbs one-third of carbon dioxide generated on land. Mining platforms, machinery and transport ships will add to noise and pollution that damage marine life.

In addition to polymetallic nodules, two other types of deposits are being considered for ocean mining — polymetallic sulfides, found in hydrothermal vents, and metal-rich cobalt crusts, which lie in hardened layers along underwater mountains. Both will be even harder to mine.

Environmentalists also worry that China’s history of privileging industry over the environment will lead to diluted regulations. Residents and authorities in southeastern China are still grappling with the widespread soil and water pollution caused by a boom in mining for rare-earth metals starting in the 1990s.

Over the three-week session in July, Chinese delegates advised the ISA to be “prudent” in levying financial punishments on contractors that violate rules. The delegation opposed the creation of an independent commission to ensure companies follow environmental regulations.

For the entire last week of the meeting, China single-handedly blocked debate on maritime protection, including discussion of a moratorium on deep-sea mining, a proposal that is now supported by 22 countries concerned about environmental damage.

Chinese officials often say environmental preservation must be balanced against the need for development — an approach that concerns other delegates.

“If you balance these, then it would not be effective. It’s a mandate of UNCLOS,” said Gina Guillen-Grillo, head of the Costa Rican delegation, citing UNCLOS Article 145, which says countries must ensure “effective protection for the marine environment from harmful effects.”

“You have to comply with it, and once you comply with it, you can mine,” she said. “It’s not like you can mine a little and comply a little.”

Nodules containing nickel, cobalt and manganese rest atop core samples taken from the ocean floor. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

But proponents say that deep-sea mining is the world’s only industry to be regulated before it exists and that it is necessary for the electric cars and other technologies that will help avert climate disaster.

Contractors like The Metals Company — the only firm to test a full deep-sea mining system in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone — are ahead in the technology race, but Chinese companies are catching up.

“They are starting to build momentum,” said Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company, referring to the three Chinese firms in control of China’s exploration claims. “We are seeing, certainly, an increase in activity. They now have substantial budgets that they didn’t have two years ago.”

In 2021, China’s COMRA tested a system to collect polymetallic nodules at a depth of 4,200 feet in the East and South China Seas.

“When it comes to writing international deep-sea rules, China’s voice is getting stronger,” Liu Feng, then head of COMRA, wrote in a 2021 paper.

China is now positioning itself as a leader ready to teach other countries about the sea. Its domestically produced submersibles are capable of diving more than 35,000 feet to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth.

“Now we have this equipment, we can make up for lost time,” Wang Pinxian, a Chinese marine geologist who spearheaded some of China’s earliest deep-sea programs, said in an interview. “China can be its own master and can host and work with people from developing countries.”

Mining technology with military applications

The Chinese vessel Dayang Yihao, seen in July 2018, has spent time in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone near Hawaii conducting research for deep-sea mining. (Xue Hun/Imaginechina/AP)

While the Dayang Hao was prospecting for polymetallic nodules in the past few months, Beijing Pioneer Hi-Tech Development — the Chinese contractor in control of that claim area — was testing a high-precision survey system that can operate at depths of more than 19,000 feet. The vessel had students from Kenya, Argentina, Nigeria and Malaysia on board, where they studied the ocean and played tug of war, according to state media.

Such benign descriptions belie what researchers say is the other clear purpose of China’s deep-sea program: to develop military advantages in the ocean.

The research needed to prepare for deep-sea mining — measuring the acoustics or temperature of currents, mapping the topography, and developing equipment that can operate under high pressure at low visibility — is the same as that needed for underwater warfare.

“When they’re sending submersibles, the planners behind it are thinking about minerals but they’re also thinking about how to take advantage of the deep sea for military advantage, not just anti-submarine warfare but also for their submarines,” said Alexander Gray, a former White House National Security Council official now at the American Foreign Policy Council.

China has also signaled that it’s thinking this way. China’s national security law now includes the international seabed as an area where Chinese assets and interests must be guarded. China’s Central Military Commission, which oversees the country’s armed forces, has identified the deep sea as a new battlefield.

Chinese scholars have flagged the importance of polymetallic nodules for military and aerospace equipment, while China’s People’s Liberation Army noted the opportunities of the deep sea for modern warfare in a 2022 article.

There are close connections among China’s academic, commercial and military sectors, and several of the country’s most ambitious deep-sea mining projects have been funded under military research programs. China Minmetals, one of the contractors in control of China’s deep-sea exploration licenses, carried out mining tests under the 863 Program, a government initiative to develop cutting-edge technology for national security.

Employees of China Minmetals attend the opening ceremony of a metallurgical plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. China Minmetals is one of the Chinese companies seeking to mine rare metals from the seafloor. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News/Getty Images)

These close links make it difficult to know when Chinese deep-sea survey ships are collecting data for scientific or military purposes.

According to ship-tracking data collected by Global Fishing Watch and the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Chinese deep-sea survey vessels, including the Dayang Hao, have in recent years ventured into the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Palau and the United States.

One of those ships, the Kexue, did surveying for 20 days in July and August 2022 near the Scarborough Shoal, one of the most contested areas in the South China Sea and the site of an ongoing showdown between China and the Philippines, which both claim the atoll. The Dayang Hao also appeared to conduct ocean bed surveying in exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Malaysia, near the disputed Spratly Islands.

Under international law, it is illegal to conduct commercial or scientific research in another country’s exclusive economic zone without permission.

Map shows Chinese vessels near The Philippines’s EEZ

Harrison Prétat, associate director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s vast fleet of survey vessels could be collecting information for the Chinese military.

“In all likelihood, many of these surveys are both scientific and military, or commercial and military,” Prétat said.

At the end of 2021, a sister vessel of the Dayang Hao, the Dayang Yihao, was exploring the Clarion-Clipperton Zone as part of a four-month expedition by China Minmetals when it suddenly traveled away from China’s claim area, heading straight north. It crossed into the U.S. exclusive economic zone near Hawaii, where it traveled for five days, tracing a loop just south of Honolulu, before returning to its claim area.

The State Department did not receive a request from China to conduct scientific research in the U.S. zone on those dates, a spokesperson said.

Map shows Chinese vessel Dayang Yihao entering U.S.’s EEZ

The detour would have given researchers a chance to understand the seabed topography around Hawaii, or the conditions of naval operations and how submarines move in and out.

“The U.S. would be concerned if any state-owned vessel was close,” said Thomas Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submarine warfare officer and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Such movements are a concern for both countries — and one that will only become more pressing as deep-sea mining becomes a reality.

“For China, as it becomes a maritime power,” said Zhu, of Nanjing University, “how and whether it can establish a mechanism for working with the United States is definitely a difficult problem.”

About this story

Story by Lily Kuo, with research by Pei-Lin Wu. Story editing by Anna Fifield. Project editing by Courtney Kan. Photo editing by Jennifer Samuel. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Graphics by Samuel Granados. Design and development by Kat Rudell-Brooks and Yutao Chen. Design editing by Joe Moore. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo and Martha Murdock.

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