Deep-sea mining rivalry threatens sovereignty and environment
Written by: (Contributed) on 26 June 2023
(Above: Original photo by fabrikasimf at freepik.com)
A recent statement from a well-placed defence and security specialist and colleague in Canberra has provided a fascinating insight into US-led Cold War neo-colonial diplomatic relations between Australia and countries across the Pacific. Related information elsewhere has shown how the business-led lobby expect government subsidies to pursue neo-colonial ambitions, while returning very little, if anything, back to the Australian economy to benefit the working class, or Pacific Islanders
A statement issued by a senior fellow at the Strategic Analysis Australia business intelligence organisation and an 'expert associate' with the National Security College together with a colleague identified only as an independent consultant have revealed a major Cold War drama being played out in the Pacific, with the US expecting Australia to take a leading role. The seventy-centimetre column statement, issued through mainstream media, was couched in diplomatic jargon and insisted Australia 'should encourage Pacific leaders to establish a regional deep seabed mining agreement'. (1) Even the title of the statement left little to the imagination: it was expected Australia push a pro-US diplomatic line on Pacific Island nations. (2)
The statement was, nevertheless, highly critical of Australian governments for having 'remained silent … but now is the time for us to stop dithering on seabed mining … doing or saying nothing is no longer a credible policy option'. (3) The statement that 'Australia should be at the forefront of this emerging industry in our neighbourhood', is little other than a strengthening of the existing neo-colonial position toward the Pacific Islands. (4)
No concern for Pacific Islands’ sovereignty
Elsewhere in the statement, equally dismissive positions are taken against Pacific Island nations and their sovereignty, as 'independent' countries: it advocated the countries should adopt 'surveillance capacity and policies that reflect regional and national development strategies and meet environmental standards'. (5) No reference or acknowledgement was given to the role of the Pacific Islands Forum. The regional representative body has long-standing policies which collectively favour member countries.
It is not difficult to establish the role of the US behind this diplomatic position. Those with experience of walking the corridors of power in both Canberra and Washington have recently tabled a report highlighting the importance and significance of critical minerals: they took care to not refer to the deposits in the Pacific, although suggested the matter should be 'a key pillar of the AUKUS alliance … and … the solution is for AUKUS and its partners to engage Australia as the spearhead of mineral diversification'. (6) Further reference to Australia being responsible for 'bankrolling their development through offtake agreements and use strategic stockpiles', is, perhaps, a perfect example of the use of loaded yet ambiguous political spin designed to cover over references to neo-colonialism and exploitation of the Pacific nations. (7) It, nevertheless, carries hallmarks of 'Yes, Minister!'
The diplomatic move to establish a deep-sea mining agreement has followed similar moves to create an Indo-Pacific Charter, centred on the so-called Quad and including South Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Philippines together with other South Pacific States. (8)
The US-led Quad seeks to dictate terms and references to 'allies' for the defence and security of 'US interests'. It is not difficult to establish what their recent preoccupation has been.
Exclusive Economic Zones: Chinese and US-Taiwanese rivalry
Many of the Pacific Islands have large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) with deep-sea deposits of rare minerals including, manganese, cobalt, nickel, gold, silver, copper and a wide range of rare earths, used for research and development of semi-conductors and AI.
Before September, 2019, Pacific nations had combined EEZs distributed almost equally between those countries which were diplomatically linked to Taiwan and those with China. Following the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching diplomatic allegiance to China, however, the distribution of EEZs is now about eighty per cent in favour of China and only twenty per cent with Taiwan. (9) The EEZs tend to be disproportionate to size of landmass.
The matter arising is further evidence of the rapidly changing balance of regional forces across the Pacific: the rise of China has been assessed as a threat to US hegemony. A leaked US-led intelligence assessment has also thrown light upon the increasingly paranoid mind-set of the Pentagon: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a regional diplomatic tour of Pacific Islands last year. He was clearly tracked by US-led surveillance systems which noted the countries visited and those with whom he met. Concerns about secrecy were raised after Wang Yi had a four-hour visit to Kiribati capital, Tarawa, indicating the US felt particularly uncomfortable about a high-ranking Chinese government official visiting the tiny Pacific Island state of Kiribati. (10)
Many of the Pacific EEZs are considered by the US as highly strategic: Kiribati, for example, is located in a sensitive area on the equator, including the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands and Line Islands, which are used for satellite tracking and surveillance. (11)
Fears exist, in Washington and the Pentagon, that China will use more favourable diplomacy in the region to gain access to mineral deposits. In fact, a recent statement from the US-backed Australian Strategic Policy Institute included reference to Beijing already having established a commanding lead over Western nations, 'even after combining the research and capabilities of the AUKUS nations'. (12)
US and China seek Pacific minerals
In recent times China has increased its diplomatic position in the Pacific through aid programs with an emphasis upon economic development. In fact, the main explanation about the diplomatic switch made by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati was that both countries wanted assistance for economic development: most Pacific Islands have fast-growing populations but lack basic infrastructure and employment. (13)
Against this backcloth of rising diplomatic rivalry between the US and China, lies the so-called 'alliance' whereby Washington and the Pentagon rely upon Australia as a regional policeman for 'US interests'. The former right-wing Morrison coalition government in Canberra allocated $2 billion toward various critical minerals projects, and the present Albanese government has furthered the funding by promising $1 billion for 'value-add in resources'. (14)
This funding, however, is primarily for the corporate sector to further its neo-colonial hold upon the Pacific countries for their mineral deposits.
Australian and Pacific peoples pay for private corporations to exploit sea-bed wealth.
Two important factors emerge: the developments are another continuation of the neo-colonial tradition which has been foisted upon the Pacific countries from elsewhere, with little benefit for the islanders themselves; ordinary Australian people, likewise, are expected to fund the corporate sector who then provide dividends for shareholders. The working class, in the countries concerned, see few benefits from these financial transactions: those 'benefits' which do arise, remain highly questionable and rarely straightforward.
The diplomatic moves have also taken place with little reference or publicity for the stance taken by President Surangel Whipps Jnr of Palau, who raised concerns last year about the 'potential impact of deep-sea mining on ocean biodiversity', and called for a regional moratorium together with a petition for a ten year pause on deep-sea mining while further research is conducted. (15)
It is not difficult to establish why Pacific Islanders remain apprehensive about mining and mineral exploration: the devastation of whole areas of PNG with the OK Tedi mining project in the Western Province and the lasting legacy of Bougainville, provide evidence of the callous position of Australian diplomacy. There are numerous other examples, elsewhere.
It has also been noted that, 'Australia has remained silent', over the deep-sea mining initiatives: diplomatic silence, however, is usually deafening. They do not want discourse, for obvious reasons.
The funding of the various projects, nevertheless, would appear to indicate Canberra has already given tacit support for deep-sea mining in the Pacific. The corporate sector and US mining companies registered in Australia also have their snouts already well into the trough, as bludgers sneaking a free lunch for themselves and their shareholders.
The Australian working class as tax-payers, however, have been left to foot the bill, while Pacific Islanders will be left to clean up the rubbish and environmental hazards: the fact many of the Islanders rely upon fishing for their livelihoods has not even been given any publicity, whatsoever.
This whole shoddy Cold War drama is a disgrace! It does not do Australia proud.
1. Our chance to take charge of the seabed mining legislation, Australian, 19 June 2023.
6. See: Beazley, Mining vital for AUKUS., Australian, 22 June 2023, which is a review of a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, by Kim Beazley and Ben Halton, June 2023.
8. Wartime charter a handy blueprint for the Indo-Pacific, Australian, 4 May 2023.
9. China now controls 80% of the Pacific EEZ., US v. China, Japan Forward: Politics and Security, 14 February 2020.
10. See: China's secrecy in South Pacific, Editorial, Australian, 30 may 2022.
11. Threat to INDOPACOM., US v. China, Japan Forward: Politics and Security, 14 February 2020.
12. Push to reverse China influence, Australian, 6 June 2023, with an included chart, Critical Tech Race, detailing six critical areas of research and development.
13. A Helping Hand 'Compact', US v. China, Japan Forward: Politics and Security, 14 February 2020.
14. Critical minerals strategy falls short, Australian, 20 June 2023.
15. 'Not worth the risk', Reuters, 28 June 2022.
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