Although she loved to globe trot, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit last year to the remote Cook Islands in the South Pacific, the first ever for an American Secretary of State, raised more than a few eyebrows in the Pacific Rim and elsewhere. While much has been written about the scramble by China, Japan, and some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states to lay claim to islands and exclusive economic maritime zones in western Pacific waters, it may not be what lies atop the bounding seas or even the oil and natural gas reserves that lie under the ocean floor that are at stake in the building geo-political chess game but what is contained in the mud at the bottom of the ocean floor that has navies and air forces vying for maritime control of Pacific waters.
Although Clinton’s formal reason for visiting the Cook Islands was to attend a summit meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, many are certain the visit had another purpose. A Cook Islands scientist recently flew to the United States to help the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) examine manganese nodules found on the seabed around the Cook Islands. It turns out that one of the results of Mrs. Clinton’s Cook Islands “getaway” was an agreement between USGS and the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority (SMA) to test nodules pulled from the Cook Islands seabed twenty years ago that have been stored ever since at the Applied Geoscience and Technology Division of the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SOPAC) in Fiji. The manganese nodules were collecting dust before the Americans realized that they may contain technologically important rare earth elements, for which China now enjoys an almost virtually monopoly. China accounts for the production of over 95 percent of rare earth elements. China’s largest rare earth elements mine is located at Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia.
Only recently has the United States decided to reopen the Mountain Pass mine in California, which closed in 2002. The reason given for the closure of Mountain Pass was that production of the elements was more cost-effective by using the Chinese mine at Bayan Obo. Some U.S. government circles then noticed that China had a virtual monopoly on the production of elements so critical for the U.S. military-industrial complex. The George W. Bush – Dick Cheney policy of allowing corporations to have maximum leeway came back to bite the United States in the supply of critical defense component minerals.
It is not only the United States that is interested in the rare earth element wealth that may lie in the mud around the Cook Islands. South Korea recently established diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands, a self-governing island group that remains an associated state of New Zealand. Aware that not only the Americans and South Koreans but the Japanese and Taiwanese are interested in Cook Island waters, the Cook Islands is the only Pacific state to enact a seabed minerals act, which governs the operations of the SMA. The SMA is also the recipient of a grant from the European Union to carry out tests of the minerals found on the seabed around the islands.
China has imposed an embargo on the export of rare earth elements to Japan and many observers believe that the current conflict between Beijing and Tokyo over the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkakus in the East China Sea has more to do with the presence of rare earth elements in the seabed surrounding the bleak and rugged rock pillars arising from the ocean than in suspected natural gas and oil reserves in the region. In any event, Japan has started looking elsewhere for the elements so critical to its high technology industry. China has restricted exports of rare earth elements to all other countries by 72 percent and it has also initiated the stockpiling of the mineral commodities for its own future use.
Rare earth elements are critical in components for electric and hybrid vehicle batteries, super-magnets, wind turbines, industrial ceramics, lasers used for military and commercial applications, high definition television screens, cell phones, nanotechnology, water filtration systems, and small tablet-size and handheld computers.
The Cook Islands appears to have the largest readily-available deposits of rare elements – in the Penhryn Basin and Manihiki Plateau — but it is not alone in the Pacific. France is increasingly resisting decolonization of its Pacific territories, namely French Polynesia, because of the potential reserves of rare earth elements in the territory’s exclusive economic zone. Australia’s use of Nauru as a detention center for refugees trying to enter Australia by sea may be a cover for Australian exploration activities in Nauruan waters for rare earth elements. Nauru was over-mined for its phosphate deposits, leaving an environmental catastrophe in the island interior. Nauru, once the world’s most prosperous nation in terms of per capita income, now rents itself as a prison camp and sells its UN General Assembly vote to the highest bidders, including the United States and Israel.
Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), incorporated in Nauru, is not only exploring waters around Nauru but further afield in a rich zone for rare earths west of Mexico, an area known as the Clipperton-Clarion Zone. NORI operates pursuant to an agreement with the little-known International Seabed Authority (ISA), an autonomous UN agency with its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. However, UN sources have admitted that the UN has been used as a convenient cover for multinational corporations wishing to have the UN’s imprimatur on their exploitive operations in the developing world. South Korea, Germany, France, and Japan have used the ISA to seal rare earth element mining deals with the Tonga Offshore Mining Limited (TOML). This same template is being used for other corporate contracts with small Pacific island states, including the Cook Islands and its sister associated New Zealand territory, Niue.
Rare earth elements, which have been belched up from the interior of the earth in magma eruptions, are mostly found where there are manganese and iron deposits. These metallic ores absorb the rare earth polymetallic nodules.
Industrialized countries around the world are beginning to draw up their plans to stake claims in the Pacific for elements that heretofore have only appeared on chemistry and physics tests on the Periodic Table of Elements. For example, ytterbium is critical for rechargeable batteries found in electric cars and electronic devices. Gadolinium is crucial for miniature semiconductor chips, dysprosium for nuclear reactors, thulium for portable x-ray machines, europium for liquid crystal displays, and lanthanum for oil refining. Other rare earth elements include scandium, promethium, lutetium, erbium, terbium, holmium, samarium, neodymium, praseodymium, cerium, and yttrium.
With the scramble for rare earth elements in the Pacific now underway, it was no coincidence that the U.S. Navy recently deployed the USS Freedom, the first prototype littoral combat ship, on its maiden voyage across the South Pacific to Singapore, a burgeoning U.S. naval base in the region that is seeing as much U.S. naval activity as the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines… The Navy is planning to base these small, stealthy warships, with their crew of 40 sailors, to Singapore and Subic Bay, from where they will make deployments around the Pacific waters. One of the missions for the new ships is to protect the economic interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region, with rare earth elements seabed mining being as important as offshore oil and natural gas production.