In an attempt to wean the country’s over-dependence on Mainland China for rare earth needs, is Japan’s latest rare earth strike on the Minami Torishima Island too geopolitically contentious?
By: Ringo Bones
From recycling obsolete consumer electronic equipment to prospecting the seabed of the country’s territorial waters, Japan has for the past few years seems to be in a mad dash to wean itself from the People’s Republic of China when it comes to meeting its rare earth metal needs. But is the latest find on Minami Torishima Island might just too geopolitically contentious for Japan and other countries desperate to get its rare earth metal needs other than Mainland China?
Upon hearing sketchy reports of Japanese rare earth explorations of the Minami Torishima Island – also known as Marcus Islands – via CB radio “DX-ing” a few days ago, it seems like Minami Torishima Island is a place forgotten by Google search because the “instant search results feature” of the famed search engine can’t even redirect “confused online researchers” who don’t know how to spell the said Japanese in its accepted Roman letter spelling who are just recently looking for facts about Minami Torishima Island.
Even on the entry on Wikipedia, the island seems to be a 21st Century geographical obscurity in itself. Minami Torishima Island also known as Marcus Island is located 1,848 kilometers South-East of Tokyo – quite veritably for all intents and purposes in international waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And as of late, the island is claimed by two East-Asian regional superpowers – namely Japan and The People’s Republic of China. And anytime soon, either the island’s native inhabitants or some other countries would be voicing their sovereignty on the contentious island, making the situation akin to a real-life version of the TV series Last Resort.
The latest exploratory results of a Japanese rare earth metals mining firm on the said island have shown that the seabed surrounding the island contains commercially viable deposits of dysprosium – a rare earth metal vitally important for the manufacture of tiny, powerful magnets for use in motors of modern computer main memory drives and other indispensible contemporary hi-tech applications. But will Japan’s bid to wean itself form Mainland Chinese sourced rare-earth metals creates more regional geopolitical harm than good?
Even if Japan will win an internationally recognized claim on the Minami Torishima Island – otherwise known as the Marcus Island – it will only be just a first of the very difficult hurdles that it will overcome in extracting the economically viable deposits of dysprosium in the island’s seabed. First of all, the economically viable dysprosium ore – literally beige colored mud ooze – on the island’s seabed lies on average 3,000 to 5,000 meters below the Pacific Ocean. And given that there’s this 1970 UN General Assembly declaration that deep-sea minerals were the common heritage of mankind, Japan could end up sharing some of the profits with the Beijing government, and with a preexisting dispute with the People’s Republic of China over the Senkaku Islands, this situation could get ugly fast.
International law rigmaroles aside, Japan’s rare earth metals mining operations on the Minami Torishima Island – if it ever gets the green light – could and might soon attract ship-borne environmental picketing from the world’s leading environmental pressure groups like Greenpeace. This scenario has a high probability of certainty because every commercially viable rare earth metal ores that have been currently so far tend to be weakly to strongly radioactive due to the fact that that rare earth metals’ actinide homologues - like thorium and uranium - also occurs naturally in these ores, which is the main reason why mine tailings of rare earth metal mining and refining facilities can be significantly radioactive – at levels that can certainly pose a clear and present health risk to humans who come close to it.