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China and Japan face off over Pacific Ocean rare earth rights

Asian foes both submit applications to trawl seabed

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Japan and China’s maritime stand-off is set to extend to the Pacific Ocean after both submitted applications to sweep vast swathes of the seabed for copper, cobalt and the rare earths so beloved of hi-tech manufacturers.

UN body the International Seabed Authority (ISA) announced that it has received two new applications for licenses to explore “cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts” in the West Pacific Ocean.

The two applicants, both of which are prepared to sign up to a JV agreement with ISA, are the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC).

The ISA added the following:

Both applicants have elected to offer an equity interest in a joint venture arrangement pursuant to regulation 19 of the Regulations.

In accordance with the Regulations, the members of the Legal and Technical Commission will be notified of the above applications and consideration of these applications will be placed on the agenda of the Commission at its next meeting in 2013.

The Chinese body filed its application a few days before Japan, on 27 July, although there is no indication of whether one or both will be granted mining rights.

Japan actually claimed to have discovered billions of tonnes of rare earths on the Pacific seabed over a year ago, although the cost of extraction may be high.

COMRA, meanwhile, has been researching the area of the West Pacific Ocean seabed for 15 years, according to a China Daily report.

"Although no countries can realise commercial mining in the deep seabed exploration for mineral resources, gaining the exploration rights for the seabed will provide potential strategic mineral reserves for the country," COMRA deputy director Li Bo told the paper.

Given that China claims it only has a third of the world’s reserves of rare earths, despite producing more than 90 per cent of the world’s supply, an additional undersea source would come in very handy.

China has been ramping up its deep sea exploration recently, its manned submersible Jiaolong diving to a depth of over 7,000 metres in June.

Plans have also been unveiled for a prototype nuclear-powered mobile deep sea station.

Asian giants China and Japan have, of course, been involved in a maritime dispute of a different kind recently, over a disputed set of islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in the People’s Republic. ®

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