Sand, the most abundant of all minerals, is present around us. After air and water, it is the most consumed natural resource on earth. It is melted and transformed into different ways that are interconnected with our daily lives in ways we are not commonly aware of. Sand plays a strategic role in delivering ecosystem services. It is vital in infrastructure for economic development, providing livelihoods within communities and maintaining biodiversity.
Since the 18th century, it has shaped states’ “Landscape and Engineering” through material processes and by setting the environment through anthropo-interactions. Although sand has been used since antiquity, it is only with the advent of a modern industrialized world that industries began to harness the full potential of sand.
Strategically, it is a reservoir of strategic minerals such as silica, thorium, titanium, uranium, zircon, rutile, monazite, xenotime, among several others. Therefore, sand is essential to innovation and manufacturing security. In short, it is the salient ingredient of human civilization and we are rapidly depleting it.
China’s Quest for Sand
From 2011 to 2013, China used more concrete than the United States in all 100 years of the 20th century. In 2020, China imported $244 million in sand, becoming the world’s largest importer of sand. In the same year, sand was the 458th most imported product in China. China primarily imports sand from the United States ($54 million), Malaysia ($53.2 million), Australia ($52.7 million), Mozambique ($31.6 million), and Indonesia ($20 million). Meanwhile, new mega projects are being constructed in China and cities are becoming bigger and bigger. Urbanization is accelerating, and so too is the need for buildings, electronics, and infrastructure. Hence, China’s demand for sand is set to increase exponentially in the coming years.
In August 2022, United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan invited the wrath of China. Apart from the political tensions between the US and China, it is interesting to note that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) rolled out halting shipments of sand to Taiwan, which affected the latter’s economy. Sand is crucial for Taiwan as a raw material for construction projects, including transport and water conservancy, while it is also used for producing silicon wafers in chip production, which is one of the island’s key manufacturing sectors.
Closing the Gap
Sand, in the past, was also used by Beijing as an unlikely weapon to deter and intimidate Taiwan. The Taiwanese coastguards regularly battle the Chinese dredgers that illegally incur into the former’s maritime space. Taiwanese coast guard vessels were sent to disperse about 4,000 Chinese dredgers in Taiwanese waters in the first 10 months of 2020, the government-run Central News Agency reported. Chinese dredging ships are regularly swarming Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, and sand-dredging is one weapon China is using against Taiwan in a campaign of so-called gray-zone warfare, which entails using irregular tactics to exhaust a foe without actually resorting to open combat.
The Taiwanese authorities observe that China is illegally dredging sand from Taiwanese waters and using it to reclaim land. This in turn has effectively reduced the distance between Taiwan (Kinmen) and China (Xiamen) by four kilometres. China has been effectively trying to erase the natural boundary created by the sea. Kinmen, which is much closer to the Chinese mainland than it is to Taipei, is of considerable strategic importance in the Taiwan Strait. This also assumes greater importance due to the latest official document on Taiwan released by Beijing that mentions the latter’s refusal to rule out the use of force to unify Taiwan.
Su Tzu-yun, an associate research fellow with a Taiwanese military think tank, the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, calls all these a “gray-zone strategy with Chinese characteristics.”
In the past, sand used in construction came from regional quarries and rivers, but those sources are now nearly depleted; hence, much of the sand used in construction comes from the sea. These dredger fleets move across the globe in what is now a multibillion-dollar industry, and this has all sorts of environmental hazards for the marine ecosystem. But maritime sand by itself is salty, which doesn’t go well with cement, so to use maritime sand it needs to be washed with fresh water, which produces yet another long-term complication.
Geologically, sand is a non-replenishable resource and the composition of it is a process that takes centuries, if not millennia. In the book “World in A Grain”, the author, Vince Spicer, explains the properties of desert sand. He describes how the grains of desert sand are round, polished by wind and time so thoroughly that they don’t stick together to form durable concrete that is usable for any construction activity, whether it’s an artificial island or a hospital. To be utilised, the sand grains need to have rough edges so that they stick together. The sands sourced from river bank beds, floodplains, lakes, seashores, and the deep sea have rough edges, which makes them perfect for industrial use. In contrast, desert sand possesses all the wrong properties and is thus considered insignificant. This also explains, for instance, why the UAE imports sand from Australia or Saudi Arabia imports sand from Scotland. Such activities have been so popular that it has entered the linguistic lexicon that “selling sand to an Arab” is a saying used in common parlance.
Today we live in an era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is built on computers and the internet through advancing connectivity and AI. Cities are being built at a scale and pace never seen before in human history. Global supply chains are stretched thinly. These rapid shifts have made nations recognise “maritime sand” as a finite resource like any other commodity.
Today, supply chains are not endless as previously believed to be as nations are going more inward looking to attain self-sufficiency and reduce external reliance. The Singapore example provides a glimpse into the future for it treats sand as a ‘strategic resource’, thereby stockpiling it in massive quantities and keeping it as a reserve, something that is comparable to the strategic stockpiling of oil and gas.
The last three decades have seen a construction boom in Singapore. The population has nearly doubled, and reclamation has increased the area’s land mass by 20 percent. This urban and terrestrial expansion exhausted Singapore’s local sand deposits, including its seafloor. Since then, the state has turned to its neighbours for additional supplies to sustain its growth. Such high-volume sand imports have drawn Singapore into disputes with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia.
Sand & Geopolitical Tensions
Sand is one of the most dynamic minerals where when drained from underneath the sea, gravity pitches in to compensate for the deduction by moving sand grains from higher elevations, even over faraway distances. In effect, this means shorelines all across the world are shrinking in size or will likely see a shrink in their geography, which may also lead to conflict and tensions. For maritime and island states, this will prove to be a long-term complication, especially when factoring in rising sea levels due to global warming and climate change.
In the past three decades, as Singapore imported sand from its neighbors, some small islands started disappearing. To quote one such example, Indonesia lost two dozen islands while exporting sand to Singapore, which in turn resulted in border demarcation talks between Indonesian and Singaporean lawmakers. In 1997, the situation declined to such an extent that Malaysia stopped selling sand to Singapore. Later, Indonesia and Cambodia followed suit, and later, even Vietnam imposed a sand ban in 2009. Such episodes reveal the increasing shortage of sand and how it is slowly transforming into a strategic resource. Stockpiling sand could become a new practice globally in the near future. Singapore and the UAE are also manifestations of a slowly building crisis that demonstrates the coming of sand conflicts.
As of today, sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world, and when a strategic resource becomes finite, it becomes a catalyst for geopolitical strife. Unless steps are taken, the prevailing sand crisis will steadily promote maritime disputes, endanger communities, cause shortages and damage the environment. Finite resources will create or carry an inherent potential to instigate infinite conflicts.
Despite the strategic importance of sand, its extraction, sourcing, use, and management remain largely unregulated in many regions of the world, leading to numerous environmental and social consequences that have been largely overlooked. It is time we needed an architecture for “Sand Governance” to not only protect geopolitical interests but also address environmental concerns.
[Photo by Enrique/Pixabay]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a Ph.D. scholar and a Senior Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies, a think tank researching on China offering peninsular perspective. His areas of interests include Russia–China Relations, China’s Foreign Policy, Security and Strategic Studies.