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India’s quest for cobalt: Navigating geopolitical tensions and oceanic mineral riches

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India’s rush to explore the cobaltrich Afanasy Nikitin Seamount (AN Seamount) in the Indian Ocean highlights the intense geopolitical competition for critical mineral resources. Located in the Central Indian Basin, the AN Seamount is a vast underwater structure rich in valuable minerals such as cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper. These minerals are crucial for various industries, particularly in the production of rechargeable batteries for electronics and electric vehicles, as well as in aerospace and medical applications.

India’s strategic move

India’s urgent application to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for exploration rights is driven by a combination of economic needs and strategic concerns, particularly regarding China’s dominance in the region. China already controls a significant portion of the world’s cobalt supply, and its presence in the Indian Ocean is seen as a potential threat to India’s strategic interests. India is thus keen to establish its presence and stake in the AN Seamount to counterbalance China’s influence.

Sri Lanka’s competing claim

Sri Lanka is also eyeing the AN Seamount and has submitted a claim to extend its continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles. If approved, this would give Sri Lanka rights to the seamount, complicating India’s efforts to secure exploration rights. The overlapping territorial claims have resulted in a stalemate, with India’s application currently on hold as it navigates these geopolitical challenges.

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Mineral riches of AN Seamount

The AN Seamount, located about 3,000 km from India’s coast, is a prime target for deep-sea mining due to its rich deposits of cobalt and other minerals. Surveys conducted around two decades ago revealed substantial reserves of cobalt, which is vital for battery technology and numerous industrial applications.

Challenges of deep-sea mining

Technological and Economic Hurdles

Despite the potential mineral wealth, extracting these resources poses significant challenges. The technology for deep-sea mining is still in its infancy, and the costs associated with developing and deploying it are prohibitive. No country has yet achieved commercial extraction from the open ocean, highlighting the nascent state of this industry.

Environmental Concerns

The environmental impact of deep-sea mining is also a major concern. The extraction process can disrupt marine ecosystems and the biodiversity that thrives around seamounts. India, along with other countries interested in deep-sea mining, must balance the economic benefits with the need to protect these fragile environments.

India’s response and future plans

Deep ocean mission

India has launched a Deep Ocean Mission, investing $500 million over five years to explore and exploit deep-sea resources. This initiative includes the development of a manned submersible to facilitate the exploration and collection of polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor. These nodules are rich in essential minerals, including cobalt, which are critical for India’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070.

Strategic positioning

India’s application for exploration rights is not just about immediate resource extraction but also about securing a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean. This move is seen as a preemptive measure to counter China’s growing influence and to ensure that India can access the resources needed for its clean energy transition and economic development.

Conclusion

India’s push to explore the AN Seamount underscores the broader geopolitical struggle for control over critical mineral resources in the Indian Ocean. The competition with Sri Lanka and the strategic concerns about China’s influence highlight the complex dynamics at play. As India advances its Deep Ocean Mission and navigates the geopolitical and environmental challenges of deep-sea mining, it aims to secure a sustainable and strategic supply of essential minerals for its future growth and energy needs.

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