An official with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology has said that researchers are preparing to start a new survey for valuable deposits of rare earth minerals in the country’s Pacific seabed. The search is scheduled to begin on January 21st, and will see them probing roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) southeast of Tokyo, near the small island of Minamitorishima. A successful find of minerals will help Japan to reduce its reliance on China within the high-tech manufacturing industries.
This will actually be the second survey of the area, following last summer’s findings of a 6.8 million ton deposit of rare earths by University of Tokyo professor Yasuhiro Kato. Should that turn out to be accurate, it would be enough minerals to supply Japan’s consumer electronics and hybrid car engine needs for more than 220 years. This deposit is the first to be found within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, a huge benefit for the island nation that currently can only rely in imports.
As over 90% of the world’s supply of rare earths comes from China, the push for Japan to reduce its reliance stems greatly from the ongoing diplomatic tensions over a group of disputed islands. Politics have often gotten in the way of Japan’s supply from China, most notably in 2010 when the Beijing government briefly suspended all shipments. Similar action was threatened again shortly after the eruption of anti-Japanese protests in China in mid-September.
While China claims it has increased its restrictions on rare earth exports, not just to Japan, but to the international community as well, because of environmental concerns. Tired of the tight squeeze, Japan has been joined by the U.S. and European Union in filing a complaint over unfair practices with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Several other countries which are believed to have their own mineral deposits, including Vietnam, are eager to cooperate with Japan, which supplies the financing and processing technology, so both can benefit without having to deal with China.