Even More on UNCLOS- What About Deep Seabed Mining?

by Julian Ku

U.S. opponents of UNCLOS, whom I think have a number of quite sensible points, do need to explain how the U.S. is going to operate effectively in a world where all other major seafaring nations belong to the UNCLOS system.  And they have offered decent arguments.  Customary international law already guarantees navigational rights. Bilateral treaties, or even unilateral declarations, can establish U.S. sovereignty over its extended continental shelf.  But what about deep seabed mining that occurs outside the sovereignty of any nation? Under UNCLOS, a nation must make an application to the Authority for rights to develop such deep seabeds.  It appears that China, for instance, has done just that in its aggressive move to develop seabed mining for certain metals and minerals on the Pacific seabed.

China plans an ultradeep dive by a manned submersible beneath the Pacific that would propel it past the U.S. in a race to explore potentially vast mineral resources in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans.

The Pacific test site was selected because the state-run China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association, also known as Comra, signed a contract in 2001 with the International Seabed Authority, a United Nations body that oversees mining in international waters.

The 15-year contract initially allowed Comra to explore 150,000 square kilometers of seabed for polymetallic nodules—small rocks containing metal ore—although the area was reduced to 75,000 square kilometers after eight years.

ISA, which is based in Jamaica, is meeting to discuss, among other things, unprecedented applications from China and Russia to explore a more recently discovered mineral source, called polymetallic sulphides.

Would a U.S.-based company feel comfortable investing in a project for which it could not establish safe legal title? I think, essentially, opponents of UNCLOS will have to concede that U.S. companies in this situation would have to rely on foreign partners located in UNCLOS member-states, to establish title for such projects.  This may not be a big deal, but it is one clear advantage of UNCLOS, it seems to me, that may or may not outweigh all the other disadvantages.


One Response

  1. I am far from an UNCLOS expert but it seemed to me that it is an enormous package deal.  I fully expect that people can pull at this point or that point they do not like, blow it up into something that looks important (imagine the future incredible wealth that some day will be mined that we are giving up; imagine the International Seabed Authority giving money to terrorists, imagine (fill in the blank)).  The important thing for a business will be the internal rate of return and the security of the investment.  Those numbers can be run as well as the risk assessment.  I am not aware of a bunch of people rushing out to outer continental shelf right now and exploiting and do not have a sense of a timeline for that kind of exploitation as compared to the 200 nautical miles in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

    Maybe the package deal is not impressive enough when these pieces are separated.  I thought the US Navy was in favor of us joining UNCLOS – that to me was a pretty powerful factoid in favor of the US joining.  The upside for them in their current operations and out to the foreseeable future appears significant.  I do not have a sense as to whether the alleged downsides really can compare – especially when we are in three to four wars.  But, again, I am not an expert in this area and I really appreciate Julian bringing these things forward.


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