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Disrupting local ecosystems

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
April 16, 2015

Manila recently accused Beijing of damaging some 120 hectares of coral reef systems near the Spratly Islands. DW speaks to analyst David Rosenberg about the ecological impact of China's activities in the South China Sea.

Südchinesisches Meer Philippinen Taiwan
Image: AP

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said on April 13 that "China's massive reclamation activities are causing irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It also said that the destruction of coral reef systems resulting from Beijing's land reclamation projects is estimated to lead to economic losses to coastal states valued at $100 million annually.

Recently published satellite images show that China is quickly reclaiming land around a submerged reef within an area the Philippines views as its exclusive economic zone. Reclamation is well advanced on six other reefs in the Spratlys. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei and triggering territorial disputes.

In a DW interview, David Rosenberg, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University (ANU), talks about the impact the building projects and territorial disputes are having on the ecology and about how the international community should react to China's ambitions in the region.

Australien David Rosenberg
Rosenberg: 'The costs of coral reef destruction could be catastrophic in the long run'Image: Middlebury College

DW: What environmental impact are China's land eclamation projects having on the South China Sea?

David Rosenberg: The current Chinese and Taiwanese construction projects in the Spratly Islands are primarily military installations. But they are small in size. Itu Aba, the largest land feature in the Spratly Islands, has less than half a square kilometer in total area. It is occupied by Taiwan which is expanding its port there to accommodate frigates and coast guard cutters, and is also making improvements to its 1,200 meter runway.

In the short term, the environmental impact of all these building projects is highly disruptive to local ecosystems due to sand dredging, coral mining, and cement pouring. The long-term impact is not yet clear.

What economic impact could the destruction of the coral reefs have on the Spratlys?

It is difficult in the short term to attribute any specific economic losses to coral reef destruction. In the long run, however, the costs could be catastrophic. Coral reefs are the foundation of the maritime food chain. They provide the habitat and spawning grounds for numerous fish species, including many of the world's most valuable and productive stocks of tuna and shrimp.

The "Coral Triangle" formed by the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, the Sulawesi Sea and adjacent waters is widely recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity. The area also has extraordinary scientific value in learning more about the evolution of life on earth, as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered generations ago in the Malay Archipelago.

'The big increase in the demand for fish consumption has led to the over-exploitation of fisheries in the shared waters of the South China Sea'Image: CC2.0/TheAnimalDay

What other areas in the South China Sea are being affected by these projects?

These building projects should be seen as part of China's response to the most frequent source of low-level conflict in the South China Sea: fishing vessels competing for dwindling fish stocks. Given the increasing living standards of growing coastal populations around the South China Sea, there has been a big increase in the demand for fish consumption.

This has led to the over-exploitation of fisheries in the shared waters of the South China Sea. Fish catch rates began to decline in the 1970s with sharper declines registered in the 1980s, as bottom trawlers came into widespread use.

Fisheries depletion is not only evident in declining catch rates, but also in smaller fish sizes, and market movements down the food chain from large, high-value fish such as tuna, grouper, and snapper to smaller and lower-value fish such as sardines, herring, and mackerel.

Poaching and fishing in contested waters have become widespread in the region. This may lead to the worst case of irreversible and widespread damage, a collapse of regional fisheries similar to the tragedy of the commons in the North Atlantic cod fisheries in the 1990s.

What can be done to mitigate the environmental impact and ensure that someone bears responsibility for the damage?

The first thing to do is to closely monitor China's building projects. A second priority is to re-engage China in multilateral efforts for regional environment protection and resource management.

An opportunity was presented in November 2011, when China announced that it would establish a three billion yuan ($476 million) fund for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation on scientific research, environmental protection, freedom of navigation, search and rescue, and combating transnational crimes at sea.

More recently, at the 2015 Boao Forum for Asia, Beijing officially launched the Year of ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation.

China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi said that China and ASEAN nations would carry out cooperation in the areas of marine economy, maritime connectivity, marine science research and environmental protection, safety and security, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges on the sea. Regional diplomats and political leaders should pursue these prospects.

A third option worth doing is to emulate successful examples of equitable and sustainable resource management even in disputed areas such as the Tonkin Gulf Joint Resource Management Zone between China and Vietnam.

The agreements between China and Vietnam in the Beibu or Tonkin Gulf took effect in 2004, have a term of 15 years, and address three key issues.

First, they reaffirm each country's exclusive rights over fishery resources and fishing activities in its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Second, they establish general principles for reciprocal fishing access in each other's EEZ.

Third, the agreements create a cooperative management regime for their shared fishery resources. As long as ecosystems do not match political jurisdictions, cooperation is imperative for sustainable fisheries.

China Bildergalerie Chinas Diplomatie mit dem Bagger
'The current Chinese and Taiwanese construction projects in the Spratly Islands are primarily military installations'Image: CSIS, IHS Jane's

How should the international community react to China's ambitions in this region?

The major approach recommended here is for South China Sea stakeholders to begin or expand functional cooperation for joint resource management for marine safety, search and rescue operations, scientific research, disaster relief, protection of the marine environment, and other politically feasible areas, even while their sovereignty disputes remain unsettled.

Given the increasing economic growth and inter-dependence within East Asia, it is inevitable that there will be confrontations and conflicts at sea. The South China Sea needs a way to regulate and resolve these conflicts through administrative, legal, and police enforcement means.

For example, it would be useful to establish an "incidents at sea" agreement to provide a hotline or emergency response system to report confrontations and conflicts involving vessel seizures and crew detentions.

Coastal and international stakeholders share many overlapping interests in the South China Sea, for example, in promoting safe navigation through the sea, in standardizing port management, and in jointly managing regional fishery resources. However, on other issues such as military activity in EEZs and territorial claims, they have had conflicting views.

China Bildergalerie Chinas Diplomatie mit dem Bagger
'More sustained collective diplomatic and political action will be necessary to transform the mutually exacerbating conflicts into mutually beneficial ones'Image: CSIS, IHS Jane's

More sustained collective diplomatic and political action will be necessary to transform these mutually exacerbating conflicts into mutually beneficial ones. As Deng Xiaoping said many years ago, the only viable way to deal with intractable sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea is to set them aside and jointly develop its resources.

David Rosenberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont, and editor of www.southchinasea.org.