The South China Sea’s Marine Environment in Decline Amid Territorial Spats

Some see hope that a code of conduct between China and ASEAN states could boost cooperation on conservation.

An aerial photo of part of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, April 21, 2017.

Following its moves to militarize its holdings in the South China Sea, Beijing now plans to “saturate” the vast waterway with a “Chinese civil-maritime presence,” according to a new think-tank analysis.

The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) published the report by Alexander Neill analyzing China’s plans on Aug. 3.

As Neill notes, international concern over China’s new artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands has focused on their military utility, including the construction of aircraft hangers and long runways that can accommodate both bombers and fighter planes.

But Neill cites a dramatic example of China’s increasing non-military presence: On July 27, the country’s official Xinhua News Agency announced that a rescue vessel, the Nanhaijiu 115, had left the port of Sanya on Hainan Island to be stationed on Subi Reef, the largest of China’s artificial islands.

Neill says that China’s growing civilian presence, which follows a period of militarization, is likely to result in a rapid increase in the level of Chinese vessels deployed to outposts in disputed areas, such as the Spratly Islands.

But it’s unclear what a growing Chinese civilian presence will mean for the South China Sea’s marine environment, including fisheries, which are a major source of employment and of protein for people in the region.

John McManus, a marine ecologist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Miami, says that the waterway’s “fisheries are collapsing” due to overfishing and coral reef destruction, which was partly caused by China’s construction of artificial islands.

China’s dredging of sand and gravel and depositing it on coral reefs killed some fish and expelled others from the reefs, where they sought protection.

Given that the South China Sea constitutes one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, pollution from ships adds to the environmental damage.

According to McManus, the decline of the fisheries worries all of the nations involved, particularly because of the implications for huge numbers of potentially unemployed fishers.

Millions of Southeast Asians depend on the sea’s fishing grounds for their food security.

But China claims that based on past history it owns most of the South China Sea and therefore disputes territorial claims made by five Southeast Asian nations—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Chinese fishing boats, backed by the Chinese Coast Guard, have engaged in numerous confrontations in disputed areas with fishing vessels from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam

Why does this matter?

The University of British Columbia conducted a study in 2016 which concluded that for a relatively small—around 1,158 square miles—patch of the oceans, the South China Sea delivers “an astonishing abundance of fish.”

In 2012, an estimated 12 percent of the world’s total fishing catch, worth U.S. $821.8 billion, came from this region, according to the study by Clive Schofield, William Cheong and Rashid Sumaila.

The fish are essential to the food security of coastal populations numbering in the hundreds of millions.

The study showed that the countries fringing the South China Sea are among the most reliant in the world on fish as a source of nutrients.

“This makes their populations especially susceptible to malnutrition as fish catches decline,” it said.

The fisheries, moreover, employ at least 3.7 million people who would otherwise have few employment options.

This is almost certainly an underestimation, the University of British Columbia study says, given the level of unreported and illegal fishing in the region.

Possible Solutions

Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of South Wales, has outlined ways in which solutions might be found and how they might lead to cooperative activities among the various claimants.

On Aug. 3, the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Chinese representatives announced agreement on a draft document to be used as a basis for negotiating a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

Given the often conflicting views presented by the 11 parties, one might wonder if a COC, which has been talked about for years, will ever materialize.

But Carl Thayer has analyzed the 19-page-long document and finds a number of areas where cooperation might be possible regardless of whether the COC comes into being.

Thayer notes that pending a comprehensive settlement of various disputes among the nations concerned, Indonesia and Singapore have jointly stated that the parties concerned can still undertake cooperative activities.

When it comes to the marine environment, Thayer notes that China proposes in the draft document six areas of potential cooperation, one of which would focus on the conservation of fishing resources.

China would exclude companies from countries outside the region from participating in such cooperation.

In contrast, Thayer says, Malaysia proposed that nothing in the COC should affect the rights or abilities of the parties to conduct activities with foreign countries or private entities of their own choosing.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that since the code of conduct discussions are between China and ASEAN, “they align perfectly with Beijing’s goal of marginalizing the United States.”

“It isn’t up to the U.S. to set a timetable for reaching an agreement, but it isn’t unreasonable for ASEAN to push for one, if they could agree (which they can’t),” Glaser is quoted as saying, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Nelson Report.

Reuters news agency recently quoted a senior Chinese official as saying that it would be unrealistic to set a timetable for a code of conduct, because the issues are complex and involve many parties.

As Reuters explained, “signing China up to a legally binding and enforceable code for the waterway has long been a goal for claimant members of ASEAN, some of whom have sparred for years over what they see as China’s disregard for their sovereign rights and its blocking of fishermen and energy exploration efforts.”

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.