The South China Sea has been in the news a lot lately. Mostly because of the geopolitical tensions that have arisen with China’s claim over the largest part of the sea and its occupation of numerous islands and atolls. A case filed last year by the Philippines with an international arbitration tribunal resulted in a verdict invalidating China’s territorial claims.
Conflicting Territorial Claims
The South China Sea, although technically part of the Pacific Ocean carries way more weight than its size would suggest. It is the world’s second most used sea way and China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan all have economic and historic claims to parts of the Sea. Often those overlapping claims are in dispute. Conflict has erupted between several of these nations, most recently between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands. It appears that this political free-for-all is overshadowing other major issues of vital importance to this region. (map – The Economist)
Over Fishing Puts Fish Stocks in Peril
The South China Sea is so much more than shipping lanes and scattered islands. The Sea has historically been one of the world’s leading fishing areas. A major source of protein for the millions of people living in the surrounding countries and a livelihood for over three million people. Fishing may in fact be one of the leading factors driving the political competition for control of the South China Sea.
“While politicians argue over which country controls the region, the fishery…is on the brink of collapse”
Rachel Bale of National Geographic, who has researched the South China Sea extensively, points out. (photo – Reuters)
Maria Damanaki as the global managing director for oceans at the Nature Conservancy is concerned about over-fishing and says “it is a lose-lose situation for both fisherman and conservationists” in the South China Sea.
Giant Clam Fishers Destroy Coral Reefs
Exploitation without consideration of the consequences, seems to have been standard practice for much of the area’s fishing industries. Case in point: Chinese fishermen destroying coral reefs, on an unprecedented scale, in their search for giant clams. The coral reefs that the giant clams are embedded in provide protection for small fish, a crucial first step in replenishing marine fish stocks. The poachers remove the clams by using their boat’s propellers to dig through the reefs, leaving devastation in their wake. (photo – AFP)
The meat of the clam is considered a rare delicacy and of course an aphrodisiac (always an aphrodisiac). The shells are carved much like elephant ivory into trinkets for sale to Chinese tourists.
However the recent crackdown on corruption in China may help to limit the sale of items made from poached giant clams and the local government of Hainan Island is promoting “fishing tourism” as an alternative to illegal poaching. Unfortunately, there is a pattern that when law enforcement cracks down, the illegal product grows rare, the price goes up, which spurs on the black market trade.
“No Such Thing As Man-Made Islands”
In addition to the damage resulting from clam fishing, is that caused by dredging in the construction of artificial islands. Many of these pristine, coral reef atolls were barely above the sea surface before China enlarged them by filling in reefs with dredged sand and gravel This well documented and internationally condemned practice is China’s attempt to bolster their claims to the area. Some of the new islands have military installations and airstrips. China has claimed “no such thing” as man-made islands.
Oil Complicates the Situation
Another worrying issue for a sustainable marine environment are the oil deposits that have been discovered under the South China Sea. Surveys have been made, test wells sunk and oil extraction begun on a variety of projects and locations, however the conflicting claims and strained relations between countries have thwarted full scale efforts, so far. All of the respective nations are oil importers consequently they are playing for big stakes. Read more in the Economist. (photo – Roc Oil)
So, are there Hope Spots for the South China Sea? Maybe!
The various nations involved, including China, have made some attempts to protect the marine environment and limit the impact of illegal fishing and poaching. But the main problem is in the implementation and enforcement of the laws.
In 2002, a non-binding code of conduct was signed by ASEAN, including China, that mentioned cooperation on Marine Environmental protection. Unfortunately, we have seen what has happened since then. More recently, China announced a fishing ban, however it included a number of areas contested by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam who objected, calling it unilateral. (map – Asia Times)
While China will soon be hosting a dialogue with other ASEAN nations and their diplomats are discussing the implementation of another code of conduct, it is unknown if it will take a stronger stance on marine conservation and illegal fishing.
As Carl Thayer, an Australian expert says “as long as the territorial disputes drag on, the maritime area’s environment will likely continue to pay a high cost.” See the entire article as reported in the Asia Times.
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