Chi­nese ter­ri­to­rial clashes threaten marine life

Asian neigh­bors de­pend on sea

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY JAMES BOR­TON

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.

Sooth­ing con­cerns

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.


Po­lice face off with pro­test­ers dressed as sea tur­tles dur­ing a rally last year in front of the Chi­nese Con­sulate in Makati city to protest poach­ing in the South China Sea.

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