China fears spark Indian race for cobalt in contested ocean waters

India has sought rights to explore an underwater cobalt-rich mountain. But Sri Lanka also has eyes on the region.

Chinese research ship Shi Yan 6 is seen berthed at Colombo harbor, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. The Chinese research ship docked at the Sri Lankan port on Wednesday, likely adding to neighboring India's concerns about China's growing influence in the Indian Ocean. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Chinese research ship Shi Yan 6 berthed at a Colombo harbour, Sri Lanka, Thursday, October 26, 2023 [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

India is scrambling to secure rights to explore a cobalt-rich underwater mountain in the middle of the Indian Ocean but its bid has come up against competing claims at a time when Sri Lanka, too, is looking to mine the region for precious minerals.

The urgency behind India’s application comes from fears over China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, at a time when the world’s second-largest economy already dominates the global cobalt supply chain, Indian officials and analysts told Al Jazeera.

Cobalt is a critical mineral widely used in electric vehicles and batteries and is seen as a vital element in the green energy transition.

In January, India had approached the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority, seeking approval to explore the cobalt-rich Afanasy Nikitin Seamount, which is in the central Indian Ocean, east of the Maldives and about 1,350 km (850 miles) from the Indian coast. Formed in 1994, the ISA is an autonomous international organisation mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to regulate economic activity on the seabed.

India also paid a $500,000 fee to the ISA to consider its application, in which it spelled out its desire to conduct extensive geophysical, geological, biological, oceanographic and environmental studies in the proposed area over 15 years. The seamount consists of 150 blocks spread over 3,000sq km (1,158 sq miles).

But while evaluating India’s application, the ISA found that Afanasy Nikitin Seamount lies entirely within an area also claimed by another country as lying within the boundaries of its continental shelf, according to a note shared by the organisation with Al Jazeera. Though the ISA did not name this other country in its response to India, experts believe Sri Lanka is the nation the seabed authority was referring to. A country’s continental shelf is the edge of its landmass beneath the ocean.

According to a note shared by the ISA with Al Jazeera, the seabed authority sought a response from India to its finding of the competing territorial claims. But on March 12, India said it would not be able to respond in time for the ISA to consider its comments during the ISA’s 29th Session of the Legal and Technical Commission, which is considering the application.

As a result, the ISA note states that India’s application has been “put on hold”. The ISA is expected to review the application again once India responds.

INTERACTIVE Afanasy Nikitin Seamount map India Sri Lanka Maldives-1718774595
(Al Jazeera)

Sri Lanka’s claim

Usually, a country’s continental shelf extends up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from its shore, marking out an exclusive economic zone which only that nation can exploit for economic purposes, even though ships of other countries can pass through unimpeded.

But coastal nations can appeal to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) arguing that the outer limits of their continental shelves extend beyond 200 nautical miles.

That is what Sri Lanka did in 2009, applying for an extension of the limits of its continental shelf from 200 nautical miles to a much larger area. The CLCS is yet to decide on Sri Lanka’s claim but if it is accepted, the Afanasy Nikitin Seamount would fall within Sri Lanka’s nautical boundaries.

The CLCS, which is tasked with examining claims by nations to extended continental shelf boundaries, has in the past accepted such requests: Pakistan, Australia and Norway have rights over maritime territories that stretch beyond 200 nautical miles from their shores, for instance.

In 2010, India responded to Sri Lanka’s submission before the CLCS, without objecting to its smaller neighbour’s claims. But in 2022, it changed its position to argue that Sri Lanka’s claims would harm India’s interests. India requested the commission not to “consider and qualify” the submission made by Sri Lanka.

Al Jazeera sought comments from the governments of India and Sri Lanka on their competing claims, but has not received any response.

Chinese presence

But it is not Sri Lanka that New Delhi is most concerned about, say analysts.

A senior maritime law expert said that India’s move appears to be driven more by a desire to establish a foothold in the area to deter any Chinese presence than by any immediate exploration aims.

“India’s claim is not aimed at starting exploration immediately but at establishing its presence and stake before China enters the picture,” said the maritime expert, who is now a senior official in the Indian judiciary, and requested anonymity because of his position.

According to the ISA, China, Germany and South Korea currently have contracts for deep-sea exploration in different parts of the Indian Ocean.

Nikhilesh Nedumgattunmal, an assistant professor of maritime law at Dr Ambedkar Law University in Chennai, India, said the location of the Afanasy Nikitin Seamount – far outside the exclusive economic zones of any country – made India’s case before the ISA strong. “India has the right to seek exploration permission from the ISA,” he told Al Jazeera.

What’s at stake?

KV Thomas, a retired scientist from the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, India, echoed the assessment of the senior judiciary official on China being a key factor behind India’s decision.

Thomas said that India’s deep-sea mining initiatives are at a nascent stage. Yet, in recent years, the country has demonstrated its ambition.

In 2021, it launched a Deep Ocean Mission to explore deep sea resources, with an allocation of $500m for a five-year period.

In 2023, the Indian government said that under the Deep Ocean Mission, it was developing a crewed deep sea mining submersible, which would carry out “exploratory mining of polymetallic nodules from the sea bed”. Polymetallic nodules, also called manganese nodules, are rock concretions that serve as vital sources of critical minerals, including cobalt.

At the moment, China controls 70 percent of the world’s cobalt and 60 percent of its lithium and manganese – other critical minerals – according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. But India, which has set a deadline of 2070 to get to net-zero emissions, needs access to these minerals to fuel its clean energy economy.

Source: Al Jazeera