The environmental crisis of the South China Sea


As US and Chinese warships increasingly play chicken and China turns atolls and outcrops into militarized artificial islands, the South China Sea presents a stark picture of Sino-US strategic competition.

But China’s expansive assertion of offshore sovereignty not only challenges the territorial rights of others and free navigation on international sea lanes. It also threatens a central feature of the Southeast Asian ecosystem, and therefore the economic future of the region.

China has refused to subject its territorial claims to international scrutiny, even though six of the ten countries surrounding the South China Sea have claims to various rocks, shoals, reefs and resources within its 1.4 million square miles. China also ignored the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling upholding the Philippines’ historic rights to the Spratly Islands and rejecting China’s outsized claim to around 90% of the South China Sea (on the base of the so-called nine-dash line) .

For Southeast Asia’s 600 million people, the territorial crisis in the South China Sea is not a distant future concern. China’s actions are already harming maritime ecosystems and livelihoods in the region. This is the key lesson of the book “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground”, by James Borton of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. Leaving aside geopolitical considerations, Borton focuses on the ground truth: Chinese exploitation of the South China Sea threatens the future of the region through the ecological, environmental and economic damage it causes.

Fishing is at the heart of Borton’s history. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 15 to 56% (depending on the country) of all animal protein consumed in Southeast Asia comes from the neighboring seas. And the global market reflects this generosity. Despite making up just 2.5% of the world’s ocean surface, the South China Sea produces 12% of the world’s fish catch. According to Borton, half of the world’s 3.2 million registered fishing boats operate there.

While overfishing is a growing global problem, China is clearly a disproportionate contributor with its long-distance fishing fleet of 2,500 vessels (a number that rises to 17,000 if unregistered and illegal vessels are included) . Borton collects testimonies from fishermen, officials and researchers to show how the vital resources of the South China Sea are degrading. About 2,500 species of fish inhabit its waters, but since 2000 catch rates have declined by 70% and large fish stocks have declined by 90%.

For years, China has unilaterally declared fishing bans, supposedly to protect fish stocks. And in 2021, it passed a new law empowering its coast guard to use force against suspected violators from neighboring countries. And yet, while China’s maritime militia chased other countries’ boats elsewhere, Chinese fishing operations in the world’s no-go areas have continued, so that China alone carries 20% of the world’s annual catch.

The ecological effects of island building in China are no less troubling. The South China Sea was once home to a third of the world’s coral reefs, but according to Borton, about half have already been lost. Coral reefs around the world are being degraded by the effects of climate change. But as the PCA noted in its 2016 ruling, China has accelerated that destruction in the South China Sea, dredging more than 100 square miles of healthy coral reef to create man-made islands.

Borton sees the failure to resolve the South China Sea crisis as a harbinger of ecological disaster. Highlighting the work of the scientists, researchers and policy makers involved, it helps us understand the nature of the challenge and its possible solutions. “Just as the current pandemic requires a collaborative approach, the South China Sea requires scientific cooperation…and open access to data,” he writes. “Science diplomacy can establish…a starting point for regional cooperation” and “a much-needed break from rising tensions.”

Unfortunately, the Chinese government’s failure to do any of these things during the global COVID-19 crisis is also a warning sign. He has refused to provide basic information on the ecological impact of his island construction, even as he expands his territorial claims elsewhere in Asia. And its heavy-handed tactics and constant militarization of its new offshore real estate stock hardly suggests that it intends to share data, much less play a constructive role in preserving the region’s ecosystems.

Borton is certainly correct that citizens and scientists should work together to find ways to bridge the political divide in the South China Sea. But, given China’s intransigence, companies may be in a better position than governments to take the action he proposes. From startups to tech giants, the private sector is creating new tools that will shed more light on the situation. Satellite systems and artificial intelligence are already being used to collect and analyze massive amounts of climate data for customers and researchers. Microsoft, Google and Amazon are collecting and publishing more climate data, and business leaders like BlackRock CEO Larry Fink are pushing companies to align their operations with the global climate agenda.

But while Borton offered a clear overview of the crisis in the South China Sea, understanding the problem does not guarantee that those with the means to solve it will rise to the challenge.

Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, station chief in Asia, and director of public affairs for the CIA. © Syndicate Project, 2022.

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