India’s quest for cobalt-rich seamount hits territorial roadblock

India proposed conducting 15 years of extensive studies of the Afanasy Nikitin Seamount, including environmental impact assessments.

India’s bid to secure exploration rights over a cobalt-rich underwater mountain in the Indian Ocean has hit a snag due to competing territorial claims in the region, underscoring rising tensions over the rush for critical minerals.

New Delhi earlier this year applied to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore the Afanasy Nikitin Seamount, an underwater mountain east of the Maldives potentially rich in cobalt – a key element used in electric vehicle batteries.

But the Jamaica-based ISA, which regulates seabed mining, has put India’s application on hold after finding the seamount lies within an area also claimed by another country as part of its continental shelf, according to documents seen by Al Jazeera.

While the ISA did not name the other country, experts believe it is referring to Sri Lanka, whose claimed maritime boundaries may overlap with the 3,000 sq km seamount that is over 1,300 km from India’s coast.

The setback underscores the intensifying territorial jostling in the Indian Ocean, a resource-rich region where rising powers like India are vying for underwater mineral assets even as China extends its influence through infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road initiative.

Cobalt is essential for making the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, solar panels and other renewable technologies. China currently dominates the global cobalt supply chain, raising concerns in New Delhi over potential bottlenecks that could derail its energy transition plans.

In its application, India proposed conducting 15 years of extensive studies of the Afanasy Nikitin Seamount, including environmental impact assessments. It paid the ISA $500,000 to consider its bid.

India has not yet responded to the ISA’s finding about the overlapping claims, according to notes circulated by the body. Once it does provide feedback, the application will be reviewed again.

The conflict highlights the increasingly fractious landscape around seabed mining, a fledgling industry that has set off a global race to lay claim over valuable mineral reserves that could be vital for the clean energy transformation.

Sri Lanka is also pursuing ocean floor mining in the Indian Ocean, submitting its application to the ISA to explore a separate underwater region for polymetallic nodules, rock deposits that contain cobalt, nickel and manganese.

The ISA is racing to put together guidelines for commercial deep-sea mining, which could begin as soon as 2025. It is facing pressure from both developing nations eyeing new revenue sources and rich countries looking to secure mineral supply chains.