The United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in New York recently made public its approval and endorsement of a joint claim from the Solomon Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Papua New Guinea over 600,000 square kilometers of additional seabed on what is known as the Ontong Java Plateau.
The Ontong Java Plateau is a huge oceanic plateau located in the Pacific Ocean, lying north of the Solomon Islands. The plateau covers an area of approximately 2,000,000 km², or roughly the size of Alaska, and it reaches a thickness of up to 30 km.
The joint claim was lodged in 2009, taking approximately 10 years before the technical examination process, and disposition of the claim, was fully completed.
The technical examination process involved national teams from Palikir, Port Moresby, and Honiara, with external experts from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, engaging in over a dozen meetings and exchanges of views on copious amounts of data and information regarding the Ontong Java Plateau.
The legal implication of endorsing the extension of the continental shelf claim is that claimers of the extension (i.e. Solomon Islands, the FSM and Papua New Guinea) are vested with sovereign rights to explore the natural resources on the seabed area for possible oil, gas, minerals, and living organisms that may be of scientific or commercial value.
Among the minerals buried in continental shelves are rare earth metals, which are essential ingredients for high-tech hardware such as solar panels and semiconductors. Minerals on the continental shelf are also significantly easier to extract than minerals on the floor of the ocean, since the continental shelf is relatively shallow by comparison.
As successful joint claimants, Solomon Islands, the FSM and Papua New Guinea are expected to deposit with the Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Seas’ Office of Legal Affairs the precise coordinates of the outer limits of their continental shelf extensions.
It is possible the countries will enter into an agreement of further cooperation, delimitation, or other forms of management and regulation of the additional vast area of seabed, according to their needs, capacities, and preferences.