Chinese Reclamation Project Destroying Coral Reefs

Tensions have intensified in recent weeks, after satellite images showed that China has already commenced major construction and land-reclamation projects on disputed land, despite the fact that the territory dispute is far from resolution.

Arguments over the ownership of territories in the South China Sea have been going on for centuries, particularly between those countries whose coasts border this contentious body of water. Currently, China claims ownership of more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, despite rival claims from smaller nations including Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The disputed territory includes the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, both of which have significant environmental and economical worth. Tensions between the conflicting nations have intensified in recent weeks, after recently published satellite images showed that China has already commenced major construction and land-reclamation projects in these archipelagos, despite the fact that the territory dispute is far from resolution.

Economic and military concerns

The recent satellite images responsible for aggravating these territory disputes show that China has been using dredging and land-reclamation techniques to convert sections of previously submerged reef in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos into manmade islands. The infrastructure currently being built here is largely military, and includes airstrips, deep-water ports, piers, cement plants, lighthouses and a helipad. On May 26th, China outlined a strategy to boost its naval reach in the region, and confirmed that it would go on the offensive if escalating tension required it to do so. Several nations, including the United States and Australia, have voiced concerns over the true intent behind China’s unsanctioned development in this area.

China’s actions have also prompted accusations of foul play from the other claimant nations, which believe the superpower is using its financial and military superiority to assert de facto control over the South China Sea. Control over this body of water equates to an incredible amount of power, for several reasons. Half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea, which forms part of the trade routes between Europe and the East. The annual trade value of these routes is estimated to be worth approximately $5 trillion. It is also thought that the seabed in this region may contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas, while the fishing grounds incorporated in this body of water support the livelihoods of countless fishermen.

Environmental Impact

Concerns have also been raised over the potential environmental impacts of China’s ongoing development projects. In April, The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs stated that, “China’s massive reclamation activities are causing irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea.” The Philippines considers the Spratly Islands, where the majority of these activities are taking place, to be their exclusive territory and are one of the major contestants of China’s claims. According to David Rosenberg, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, this accusation is well founded. He reiterates the Filipinos’ concern, saying that, “the environmental impact of all these building projects is disruptive to local ecosystems due to sand dredging, coral mining and cement pouring.”

He goes on to say that the long-term effects of this disruption could be felt throughout the Coral Triangle, a region most divers are familiar with, situated at the confluence of the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Sulawasi Sea, which is currently recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity. Coral reefs like the ones being destroyed by Chinese reclamation efforts form the foundation of this incredibly rich ecosystem, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of marine species. The South China Sea is exceptionally diverse in its own right, featuring a wealth of contrasting habitats that together support more than 2,300 species of fish. Until now, the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos have been protected because the South China Sea territory dispute has kept them largely uninhabited. As that changes, so too will their environmental status.

The Future

The future of these islands is uncertain, as tensions rise and the conflict over South China Sea territories threatens to escalate. As the nations involved clamor to claim what they believe to be theirs, it is worth remembering that the environmental fallout of poor management in this area will affect all those countries whose coasts border the South China Sea, regardless of who wins ownership. In an ideal world, the solution would be to develop a joint management plan that would allow all bordering nations to extract their share of resources from the South China Sea without impacting too drastically the delicate ecosystem. On May 26th, Taiwan proposed a peace plan to this effect, in which the Taiwanese president asked all those involved to put aside their disagreements “before a major conflict breaks out.” It remains to be seen whether common sense or greed will ultimately prevail.