The Buzz

Why the South China Sea is on the Verge of an Environmental Disaster

Of all the “strategic” challenges confronting the Asia-Pacific region, none is as underrated as the destruction of the marine ecosystem. The South China Sea’s status as a critical waterway draws attention away from the fact that littoral Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse global marine bio-systems, hosting 76 percent of the world’s coral species and 37 percent of reef-fish species. Over the past two decades there have been documented instances of Chinese fishermen in the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters indulging in large-scale illegal capture of fish using cyanide, dynamite, and detonating cords. The wide range of sea life targeted has included endangered sea turtles, giant clams, giant oysters, sharks, eels, and large pieces of highly ornamental coral.

In the wake of a UN tribunal’s quashing of Beijing’s claim to historic rights in the South China Sea, what has been largely overlooked is the court’s censure of Beijing’s rampant destruction of marine life around the sites of its reclamation and other activities in the Spratly Islands. The construction, the judges held, had “caused permanent and irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.” Yet Chinese leaders refuse to accept the tribunal’s criticism. Beijing, in fact, denies its island-building posed any danger to the natural habitat of the region, even calling it a model “green project”.

Nor was the damage inadvertent. The tribunal found that Chinese authorities were fully aware of the nature and scope of activities undertaken but failed to prevent them. Despite its obligation under Articles 192 and 194 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to preserve and protect the marine environment, Beijing supported activities that harmed the fragile ecosystem of the South China Sea.

For years, China’s most destructive activity in the South China Sea has been giant clam poaching, which is said to have destroyed more than 40 square miles of some of the most bio-diverse coral reefs in the world. Chinese poachers reportedly use boat propellers to loosen the valuable clams, whose shells are sold as luxury items in China. Not only does digging up a reef destroy its ecosystem, but because of the interconnected nature of South China Sea fisheries, damage in once place causes repercussions elsewhere.

Evidence notwithstanding, Beijing claims its activities provide a public good. At the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year, Admiral Sun Jianguo, the People’s Liberation Army’s deputy chief of general staff, said that apart from “meeting the necessary defense needs,” China was carrying out construction on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea to better perform its international responsibilities, including environmental protection. If anything, Chinese analysts say the widespread damage to the regional marine bio-system must be blamed on rampant poaching that regional states collectively failed to prevent.

Such claims serve to distract attention from the destruction wrought by Chinese island-building and other activities on the marine environment. Under international law, island-building must be preceded by an environmental impact assessment. Beijing’s omissions in this regard are inexcusable. In conceiving their island-building plans, Chinese engineers would have considered the environmental consequences. Surprisingly, China’s position paper submitted to the arbitral tribunal in December 2014 did not mention any studies undertaken to assess environmental damage caused by large-scale reclamation. By refusing to accept responsibility for its actions, Beijing has shifted the onus for remedial action to other littoral states.