Following a UN tribunal’s recent ruling on the South China Sea, media attention focused mostly on the court’s rejection of China’s vast territorial claims in an area larger than the Mediterranean.
But the court’s comments on the disputed region’s endangered marine environment also sent a strong message to China.
On July 12, an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found that China had “caused severe damage” to coral reefs in the South China Sea.
International news reports on the ruling understandably focused on one major aspect of the legal victory by the Philippines in the case it brought against China: the tribunal’s invalidation of Beijing’s territorial claims to about 85 percent of the South China Sea.
But environmental experts consider the court’s extensive comments on damage caused by China and its fishing vessels to sea life in the South China Sea also to be of great significance.
John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami who has visited the region and provided analysis to the tribunal, says that based on satellite imagery the environmental damage done by Chinese clam poaching and the building of artificial islands has been severe.
According to McManus, the most widespread damage has been done by Chinese giant clam poachers who pull boats back and forth with their propellers spinning to dig up reefs and uncover the clams, which can weigh as much as 500 pounds each.
“The sand mixed into the water by these giant clam cutter boats kills everything,” McManus said at a conference on the South China Sea held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
A BBC crew that sailed into the South China Sea last December produced one of the most startling images to emerge from the scene in years.
The broadcaster came away with video of Chinese fishermen chopping up a coral reef ecosystem in what appeared to be a routine search for giant clams.
The Reuters news agency reported on June 27 from the town of Tanmen on China’s Hainan Island that the shells of giant clams have been carved like elephant ivory into intricate ornaments for sale to tourists there.
These luxury items can also be purchased over the internet.
Some Chinese regard the meat from the clams as a rare delicacy and as an aphrodisiac.
Importance of coral reefs
According to evidence cited by the international tribunal, the South China Sea contains “highly productive fisheries and extensive coral reef ecosystems, which are among the most biodiverse in the world.”
The marine environment around the contested Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands includes fish, corals, mangroves, and sea grasses as well as giant clams and sea turtles, some of them recognized as endangered, according to tribunal findings.
Testimony before the tribunal from Kent Carpenter, a professor of biological sciences at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, describes how the impact of any environmental damage occurring at Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands “can affect the health and viability of ecosystems elsewhere in the South China Sea.”
All of this is of great importance to the nations surrounding the South China Sea, because of a growing appetite for fish and the protein they provide even as fish stocks decline in the region.
The coral reefs protect small fish from predators. They also play a role in replenishing depleted fish stocks.
Experts say that in addition to the Chinese cutter boats’ destruction of coral reefs, further serious damage has been caused by Chinese boats engaged in dredging aimed at gathering sand and gravel to build of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Chinese government has also encouraged Chinese fishing boat incursions deep into the South China Sea by offering subsidies for petrol and free satellite-navigation systems.
A comprehensive report published on June 1 in Time magazine concludes that “the Chinese government’s support for local fishermen has made venturing into contested areas more economically attractive, exacerbating the overfishing that already plagues the waterway.”
Chinese officials have stated on numerous occasions that China’s island building in the South China Sea has caused no significant damage to coral reefs.
They say that China has conducted “rigorous scientific testing” and that once the country’s construction projects on contested territory that China claims are completed, environmental protection will be “notably enhanced.”
But China declined to participate in the proceedings of the international tribunal in The Hague. Beijing also declined to submit any scientific findings, saying repeatedly that it wouldn’t accept the ruling of the tribunal even before it was announced.
Chinese state media subsequently denounced the ruling as “ill-founded” and questioned the tribunal’s motives, impartiality, and competence.
China’s top naval officer, Wu Shengli, told the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson on July 25 in a meeting in Beijing that China would not stop building islands in the South China Sea, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
But in a more conciliatory tone, China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi said last week that China was willing to work with neighboring countries on the joint development of natural resources in the region.
Most obviously this might include the contested waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal, where the Hague-based tribunal found that both China and the Philippines have been fishing for many years.
But the Associated Press reported on July 21 that Southeast Asian nations involved in disputes with China over fishing grounds suspect that Beijing’s calls for negotiations are stalling tactics as China continues to build airstrips and other infrastructure in the South China Sea.
The AP said that Tran Cong Truc, the former head of Vietnam’s borders committee, had dismissed China’s overtures.
“They wanted to secure a placement in the joint development as a first step and then control all of it,” Truc was quoted as saying.”There might be some differences in the way they talk…but there is no change in their nature.”
It remains unclear what conditions Beijing would impose on such talks.
“None of the players are giving much thought to sustainable exploitation of the fish stocks,” says David Brown, a retired American diplomat, writer, and analyst who focuses mostly on Vietnam.
“But at this point only the Chinese, with the advantage of both numbers and technology, are capable of wiping out those fish stocks, one species after another.”
As a course to calmer waters, John McManus of the University of Miami proposes a freeze on territorial claims along with joint resource management shared by the countries concerned.
This would include fisheries management.
David Brown said it was important that the tribunal recognized that both the Philippines and China have traditionally fished over the Scarborough Shoal. They could conceivably share the fish stocks there, he said.
“If there were just a modicum of foresight by these three parties—China, the Philippines, and Vietnam—it’s possible to imagine their coast guards and fisheries agencies cooperating in joint, sustainable management of fishing stocks in the northern two thirds of the South China Sea.”
But bringing the parties together over the joint development of fishing grounds might prove difficult as long as nationalistic passions remain inflamed in all three countries.
This is most evident in Vietnam, where sporadic anti-China protests have been occurring in recent years. In 2014, Vietnamese rioters attacked factories run by owners from both China and Taiwan.
James Borton, a senior fellow at the U.S. Asia Institute in Washington, D.C., recently visited Ly Son Island off Vietnam’s central coast.
There, he found a community of Vietnamese fishermen imbued with nationalistic feelings and in no mood to back away from clashes with Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels.
According to Borton, the Vietnamese government has undertaken “a patriotic campaign” aimed at encouraging the population to protect their “ancestral lands” against outside incursions.
Ly Son Island hosts a national exhibition of historical maps from both Vietnam and China under the slogan “Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam—the legal and historical evidence.”
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.