China’s mounting clashes with its neighbors over control of the South China Sea also could be fueling a major environmental catastrophe, endangering fishing stocks, threatening marine biodiversity and posing long-term threats to some of the globe’s most spectacular coral reefs.
Environmental scientists say the dangers are increasing as the conflicting sovereignty claims heat up between China and eight East Asian nations bordering one of the world’s most strategic maritime routes, which boasts an irreplaceable ecological harvest of atolls, submerged banks, islands, reefs, rock formations and over 3,000 species of fish.
Beijing’s accelerated land reclamation over these specks of rock in the roiling sea in recent years has only escalated the friction among claimants. In particular, China’s expansion in Johnson and Gaven reefs — also claimed at least in part by Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam — threatens to wreck rich fishing grounds and valuable coral reefs in the archipelago.
The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that the South China Sea accounts for as much as a tenth of global fish stocks. More than a quarter of the world’s population resides in the littoral nations of the sea.
The daily dumping of landfill with sand dug from nearby reefs by Chinese laborers “upsets the marine ecology of the region, completely destroying the formed coral reefs aging hundreds of millions of years,” said Le Van Cuong, former director of the Institute for Strategy and Science and a recognized authority on the South China Sea.
“At the same time, these actions destroy the habitat of many marine species. Protecting the marine ecological environment is a global issue, and citizens all over the world are responsible for that,” he said.
The sea is bordered by Vietnam to the west, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei on the east, Indonesia and Malaysia on the south and China and Taiwan to the north, measuring 600 by 1,200 nautical miles. The tiny Spratly Islands chain, a collection over 700 islands, reefs, atolls and cays in the center of the seas, have been the most recent focus of the sovereignty struggle.
China and its rivals have occupied some of the Spratly locations with military outposts or civilian facilities over the past six decades. Brunei claims control but does not physically occupy the islands, and this month Japan has begun forging security ties with Vietnam and the Philippines.
China’s Asian rivals are increasingly using the environmental argument against their giant neighbor to jockey for advantage in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s recent construction of a string of artificial islands in the waterway “is causing widespread destruction of the region’s biodiversity” that will “irreparably damage the entire ecological balance in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea,” Irene Susan Natividad, the Philippines’ deputy representative to the United Nations, told a U.N. Security Council session this month.
“Such irreversible damage will have long-term effects on all the peoples across geopolitical boundaries who have depended on the sea for their livelihood for generations,” she said.
In the strongest statement of concern to date from U.S. officials, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at a conference in Australia last month accused Beijing of building “a Great Wall of Sand.” He said China’s construction of the artificial islands in the waterway is “unprecedented,” adding 1.5 square miles of artificial land mass in recent months.
“How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading toward confrontation or cooperation,” Adm. Harris said.
Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “anxiety and the expanded patrol and surveillance capacity that Beijing is constructing with facilities, docks and probably at least one airstrip in the Spratly Islands will complicate the disputes in the South China Sea.”
Last year, a standoff over China’s construction of a $1 billion, 40-story oil rig erected approximately 120 miles from Vietnam’s coast generated international headlines. In a surprising move, China agreed to remove the rig after sharp protests from Vietnam.
Chinese officials have tried to soothe concerns in the region while not surrendering their extensive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
“We are in this boat together with more than 190 other countries,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a press conference. “So of course we don’t want to upset the boat. Rather, we want to work with other passengers to make sure this boat will sail forward steadily and in the right direction.”
China, he said, was undertaking only “necessary” construction projects not aimed at any third party.
But on the new artificial islands, China has constructed bases and dwellings for Chinese soldiers, and some fear that oil rigs and Chinese fish-processing vessels will soon return to disputed sites and waterways.
Beijing’s actions “raise legitimate questions about the basis of China’s claim to fish in the East Sea,” said Youna Lyons, a senior research fellow at National University of Singapore. Exhaustion of fish stocks belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines would be a direct violation of the U.N. Law of the Sea, she said.
China’s moves in the South China Sea have been watched with growing concern in Washington as well.
Four U.S. senators, including Arizona Republican John McCain, have called for a comprehensive strategy to deal with China’s territorial moves, including land reclamation and construction in disputed areas.
“Longstanding interests of the United States, as well as our allies and partners, stand at considerable risk, the lawmakers warned.
Marine scientists express concern about the plight of the region’s hard and soft corals, parrot fish, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, groupers and black-tipped reef sharks. The 2008 El Nino weather pattern caused short-term increases in water temperature, resulting in widespread coral bleaching and the death of precious coral formations.
Researcher Bill Hayton has argued that overfishing remains one of the major issues that must be addressed in the region because China encourages its fishermen to trawl through contested waters.
“During the 2012 [fishing] ban, the Hainan Province Department of Ocean and Fisheries organized the largest-ever Chinese fishing fleet to reach the [Spratly Islands]: 30 vessels, including a 3,000-ton supply ship,” Mr. Hayton wrote in his 2012 book, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.”
Since 1985, China, Vietnam and the Philippines have engaged in large-scale explosive and cyanide fishing operations in the Spratlys.
Marine biologists estimate that fishing will need to drop by 50 percent to sustain target species. The sovereignty battles mean that no one regulatory body has overall control and authority to guard the ecosystem.
“In some cases, it might be easier to set up informal international activities by sponsoring participation in scientific and conservation research by nongovernmental organizations that can affect protection with seasonal and zonal restrictions,” said John McManus, a biologist and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research.