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The South China Sea is the home, for now, to some of the most spectacular biodiverse coral reefs in the world. Yet the world continues to witness satellite images in the troubled waters that show the rapid destructions of such extraordinary reefs. The cause of this ongoing destruction, which amounts to nothing less than a widening environmental crime scene, is the reckless land reclamation activities conducted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as it attempts to turn rocks into islands and bolster its expansive claims.

In this sea of opportunities, uncertainties and threats, environmental degradation remains at the center of scientific conversation as an increasing number of marine scientists sound the alarm about how to address issues of acidification, biodiversity loss, climate change, destruction of coral reefs, and fishery collapses.

With environmental security shaping a new South China Sea narrative about the ecological challenges, this concept represents a crucial effort to link the impact of environmental change to both national and international security.

Paul Berkman, oceanographer and former head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Program at the Scott Polar Research Institute, provided his own definition of environmental security. “It’s an integrated approach for assessing and responding to the risks as well as the opportunities generated by an environmental state-change.”

The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are the focal point of a territorial dispute that represents a serious threat to the regional security in Southeast Asia. Six governments — China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have all laid claims to all or some of the more than 230 islets, reefs, and shoals in the Spratly area.

However, the unanimous decision reached this summer by The Hague’s five-judge tribunal, found that China’s large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands has caused severe harm to coral and violated the country’s obligation to preserve fragile marine environments. Furthermore, it denied them any legal basis to claim historic rights over a vast majority of the South China Sea. It was a striking victory for the Philippines, which filed the case. Among many dramatic findings, the tribunal declared China’s so-called “nine-dash line” invalid.

“The Tribunal has no doubt that China’s artificial island-building activities on the seven reefs in the Spratly Islands have caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment,” stated the judgment.

In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates in two of the 17 Parts of UNCLOS a direct application to the merits of marine science research with an emphasis on encouraging bilateral and multilateral agreements to create favorable conditions for marine science study.

Destructive Practices

Professor John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami and a notable coral reef specialist, who has regularly visited the region and provided analysis to the tribunal, has stated that based on satellite imagery the environmental damage done by the Chinese’s dredgers and clam poaching is most severe.

McManus has researched this region for more than a quarter of a century. He knows that the most important resource in these heavily fished waters is the larvae of fish and invertebrates. As a result, he has called repeatedly for the development of an international peace park in this contested region.

“Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands. Given the rapid proliferation of international peace parks around the world, it is time to take positive steps toward the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park,” claims McManus.

Policy makers may do well to take a lesson or two from nature as they examine how best to address the complex and myriad of sovereignty claims. The marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating these perilous geopolitical waters. The concept of science diplomacy is not a new paradigm, but it embraces collaboration and adroitly addresses problems related to environmental protection where they arise.

Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment recognizes that the region faces enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions. Unless a scientific ecosystem approach is adopted, trans-boundary marine areas conflicts can and are getting worse.

Since ASEAN’s inception, it has been occupied with the task of identifying shared solutions to common security problems. To a large degree, one may say that security questions have been the driving force for continued regional integration in Southeast Asia. In the future questions of environmental security may play the same role.

According to Karin Dokken, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, “The states around the South China Sea are to a large degree interdependent when it comes to questions of the human environment. They are interdependent to the degree that if they fail to find common solutions to environmental problems they may end up in violent conflict against each other. In general, environmental interdependence is both a source of conflict and a potential for international integration.”

Without agreement on these environmental problems there’s a bleak future for the sea. Nearly 80 percent of the SCS’s coral reefs have been degraded and are under serious threat in places from sediment, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution, and climate change.

Challenges around food security and renewable fish resources are fast becoming a hardscrabble reality for more than just fishermen. With dwindling fisheries in the region’s coastal areas, fishing state subsidies, overlapping EEZ claims, and mega-commercial fishing trawlers competing in a multi-billion-dollar industry, fish are now the backbone in this sea of troubles.

An ecological catastrophe is unfolding in the SCS’s once fertile fishing grounds, as repeated reclamations destroy reefs, agricultural and industrial run-off poison coastal waters, and overfishing depletes fish stocks. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity warned that it could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly headed towards extinction by mid-century.” Fish catches have remained at an unsustainable 10-12 million tons per year for decades—a number that could double when Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices is included.

After all, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one tenth of global fish catches and by 2030, China will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption. Overfishing and widespread destruction of coral reefs now necessitates the intervention of science policy to safeguard stewardship of this vital area.

China has been at the forefront of this major exploitation of fish. With over 2,000 blue water commercial trawlers and over 100,000 fishing vessels, including a 3,000-ton fish processing ship, the evidence seems compelling that Beijing is not only responsible for the destruction of coral reefs but also contributing to a fishery collapse.

Foreign Policy magazine asserts that these fishing incidents and direct acts of violence are significant “because it underscores how central fishing is to the simmering territorial disputes that are turning the South China Sea into a potential global flash point — and how far countries are willing to go to defend their turf, or at least what they claim is theirs.”

Subsequently, fishing remains a politically sensitive and emotionally charged national security issue for all claimant nations. This ocean plundering presents the region with a looming food crisis. Any effort to balance the economic benefits with the security context within the South China Sea will require a coordinated, multi-level response from scientists, historically engaged in collaborative research and already addressing issues of sustained productivity and environmental security in the region.

Raising Awareness

The immense biodiversity that exists in the South China Sea cannot be ignored. The impact of continuous coastal development, escalating reclamation and increased maritime traffic is now regularly placed in front of an increasing number of marine scientists and policy strategists.

Marine biologists, who share a common language that cuts across political, economic and social differences, recognize that the structure of a coral reef is strewn with the detritus of perpetual conflict and represents one of nature’s cruelest battlefields.

While traditional diplomatic and military tactics are not completely exhausted in the latest round of diplomatic salvos between China and the U.S., perhaps the timing is excellent for the emergence of science as an optimal tool to bring together various claimants, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the highly nationalistic contested sea disputes.

The timing for a joint scientific declaration for urgent action on an environmental moratorium on dredging is much needed. Recent biological surveys in the region and even off Mainland China reveal that the losses of living coral reefs present a grim picture of decline, degradation, and destruction. More specifically, reef fish species in the contested region have declined precipitously to around 261 from 460 species.

After all, this environmental change is a global issue that holds no regard to sovereignty. The destruction and depletion of marine resources in the Spratly Islands harms all claimant nations. Perhaps, citizens from the region, who are directly impacted by the environmental attack on their sea and their fragile coral formations, can create something like a Coral Reef Action Network, similar to the Rainforest Action Network.

Protected marine reserves are an emerging tool for marine conservation and management. Sometimes called “ecological reserves” or “no take areas,” these marine protected areas are designated to enhance conservation of marine resources.

Vietnam, a claimant nation is wasting little time responding to the region’s environmental challenges and is fast-tracking its own model marine protected area program.

Cu Lao Cham is located about 20 kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. The Cham Islands are a marine protected area (MPA) that was established by the Provincial People’s Committee of Quang Nam Province in December 2005. Professor Chu Manh Trinh, a 53-year-old Da Nang University biology professor, is largely responsible for mapping out the agreed upon objectives of protecting natural resources, and cultural and historical values of the Cham archipelago. In 2009, the area was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

Vietnam has adopted marine protected areas to address present and future food security issues. These MPAs play an important role in the development of the marine economy; improve livelihoods of coastal fishing communities, and also serves to protect national sovereignty claims.

The region needs to bring together the most qualified scientists who have experience studying the marine biodiversity and environmental sustainability in the troubled SCS waters to participate in a science policy forum.

Their collaborative work may lead to the successful development of a South China Sea International Science Commission. As a result, their scientific efforts may then inspire the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to cooperate in responding to regional resource management by issuing a call for a moratorium on any further damaging reclamation work.

Of course, China has many excellent coral reef scientists of its own, who recognize it is in the best interests of Beijing to protect coral reefs, maintain sustainable fisheries, and to eventually avail themselves of ecofriendly tourism once tensions decline.

The common ground shared by all claimants is that an increasing number of South China Sea fisheries are hurtling towards collapse and this translates into a looming environmental security issue, and the outcome is all too likely to be conflict. The global scientific, conservation and legal communities must unite to halt the coral reef destruction, biodiversity loss, and fisheries depletion.

The tribunal’s first international ruling on the South China Sea offers an opportunity for measured steps towards peace and security. Of course, ASEAN has demonstrated a weak institutional capacity to address complex political and environmental issues simultaneously, but the world, including the United Nations and Washington are watching carefully how international law and its application on various claims can lead to a peaceful and lawful path forward.

Action Needed

Perhaps claimant nations marine scientists and policy shapers might take up any one of these confidence-building options:

  • Establish complete freedom of scientific investigation in the contested atolls and reclaimed islands.
  • Expand science cooperation among all ASEAN marine scientists through more academic workshops.
  • Place aside all territorial claims.
  • Create a regional Marine Science Council to address environmental degradation issues.
  • Foster dialogue for a proposed marine peace park.
  • Appoint a science-led ASEAN committee to study the Antarctica Treaty and the United Nations Environmental Program initiative under the East Asian Seas Action Plan.
  • Propose a renaming of the contested sea to the Freedom Sea or the Southeast Asian Sea.

If there are to be any fish left in the contested sea, an ASEAN ecological agreement––led by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam––can steer others to unite around a proposed international peace park or at the very least, a cooperative marine protected area situated prominently in the Spratlys.

It’s the first step in supporting trust and confidence among neighbors and in implementing a common conservation policy. After all, coral reefs are the cathedrals of the South China Sea. It is time for more citizens and policy shapers to join the chorus and rally around marine scientists so that they can net regional cooperation and ocean stewardship to benefit all before it is too late.

James Borton is a faculty associate at the Walker Institute at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow at the US-Asia Institute in Washington, DC.

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