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Members of Congress to DoD on Seabed Mining: “U.S. Can’t Afford to Cede Another Critical Mineral Resource to China”

While last month’s meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping was aimed at reducing tension between the two global powers, Evan Medeiros, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Centre for China Analysis who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, believes that “the U.S.-China relationship is entering a very challenging period, partly driven by domestic political forces in both nations that are raising tensions and pushing the two countries apart.”

As we noted here at ARPN, comments made by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California earlier this month underscored that, at least on the trade front, “all arrows very much point to confrontation.”

Concerns over China have also been mounting on Capitol Hill, especially with regards to China’s supply chain leverage over critical minerals.

Earlier this week, Congressman Daniel Webster (R-Fl), along with R-Clermont, along with House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), House Committee on Armed Services Vice Chair Rob Wittman (R-VA), and 28 of his House colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging that the Department develop a plan “to address the national security ramifications of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interest and investment in seabed mining,” arguing that “[w]e cannot afford to cede another critical mineral resource to China.”

The members note that China’s recent tightening of export controls – see ARPN’s coverage here and here — ties into a “series of efforts from the CCP to further dominate crucial supply chains this year,” and remind DoD of its mandate to “continue improving the resilience of national defense supply chains,” while emphasizing “the importance of evaluating and planning for seabed mining as a new vector of competition with China for resource superiority and security.” 

Considered mostly a futuristic niche issue for a long time, the question of seabed mining has in recent years garnered more attention as the global race for critical has heated up and technology has advanced.

According to the letter:

“The deep-sea bed contains small polymetallic nodules–rich in manganese, cobalt, copper, nickel, and rare earth elements—that are contained in deposits across international waters, often hundreds to thousands of miles from shore and occurring at water depths of 200 meters or greater. Deep-sea mining is regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an institution where the United States only holds observer status. ISA has already granted five of the 31 total deep-sea valuable metal exploration licenses to China, covering 17 percent of the of the total area currently licensed by ISA.  Russia also holds two ISA exploration contracts.China is putting pressure on ISA to accelerate its decision-making process to adopt regulations by 2025 or sooner–a demand that comes on the heels of ISA missing a deadline to establish a regulatory framework earlier this year–at which point mining can begin.”

The members conclude that the United States, and specifically, the Department of Defense, should be “engaging with allies, partners, and industry to ensure that China does not seize unfettered control of deep-sea assets,” and ask several pointed questions to which they demand answers by December 18, 2023.

(For the full letter and questions to DoD, click here.)

While the regulatory, environmental and economic challenges to deep-sea mining are not insignificant, it may just become the newest frontier in the Tech War between the United States and China – and here as on resource development on dry land, the U.S. had better be ready.