As nations fight for control, South China Sea coral reefs are dying in silence

  • James Borton and Jackson Ewing say the devastation wrought by island building in the waters, mainly by China, is having a big impact on an already fragile ecosystem
  • Cooperation on scientific research and environmental management must be encouraged to limit the damage, and as a way to build trust
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 9:07am

The worst of nature’s battlefields are visible in the destroyed South China Sea coral reefs. Over the past five years, China has added more than 1,300 hectares to islands, reefs and atolls primarily on the Spratly archipelago, in the waters between Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – which, along with China, Taiwan, and Brunei, have competing claims to the territories. Vietnam has likewise engaged in artificial island construction, albeit on a much smaller scale, as each claimant seeks, through varied means, to maximise their own position.

The South China Sea’s complex and interconnected ecosystems need the voices of marine scientists to quell the degradation wrought by such island construction, as well as the overfishing and the harvesting of critical species that mar the region.

Fish and reefs under siege as feuding South China Sea claimants refuse to cooperate

The rich marine biodiversity feeds on the patina of living corals and is home to a multibillion-dollar fishery industry, ranging from fleets of state-of-the art mega-trawlers to small wooden boats. Directly and indirectly, the South China Sea supports the food security, livelihoods, and quality of life of hundreds of millions of people.

The accelerating environmental peril in the South China Sea is inseparable from the territorial disputes that plague it. Increasing numbers of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other shallow-water ecosystems have been destroyed and buried primarily as a result of China’s push to stake concrete claims in the region. The land reclamation projects continue to undermine ecological connections between the Spratly Islands and waters of the South China Sea, choking off the supply of nutrients upon which these fragile ecosystems depend.

Within this troubled context, environmental cooperation is essential for the sea’s ecological future, and may offer a pathway for defusing strategic tension and building trust among claimants. Key leaders must be convinced to coalesce around environmental management and research, as well as setting rules for construction, amid the military posturing and economic nationalism that dominate the current status quo.

There are precedents for such cooperation and confidence-building in the South China Sea.

In the 2000s, the UN Environmental Programme led cooperative activities with support from all the major claimants to the sea. The project brought together scientists and marine experts to determine the sea’s greatest environmental challenges and map out potential responses.

Other bilateral and multilateral scientific cooperative activities, such as the Joint Oceanographic Marine Science Research Expedition in the South China Sea from 1996-2007, have pursued similar objectives. This project was initiated between the Philippines and Vietnam, to show others in the region that the challenges associated with territorial disputes could be mitigated through science.

In both cases, participants were less concerned with sovereignty and politics than with collecting and analysing scientific data, which contributed to civil and relatively uncontroversial collaboration. Despite the best efforts to create a space in which trusting relationships can exist among countries embroiled in fractious disputes, both projects fizzled out in the late 2000s. The research revealed that two-thirds of the fish stock was in a decline.

Nevertheless, the programmes’ objectives offer keen insights into how data sets and the common language of science can enrich public policy discussions. For example, some recently formed groupings facilitate exchanges between countries to discuss regional marine challenges.

Such collaboration has never been more critical, as the message is clear: fish, coral, mangrove, and seagrass stocks in the South China Sea have importance beyond their immediate marine environments, and are being disrupted at an unprecedented scale. As critical spawning grounds and early gestational habitats for aquatic resources, the shallow waters surrounding South China Sea reefs and archipelagos feeds stocks throughout the region. Once degradation passes critical thresholds, these resources may be irreparably damaged.

‘China calls it fishing, we call it crime’: Indonesian minister

Hence, a growing food security challenge looms as the destruction of marine habitats combines with unsustainable overfishing practices. The latter is accelerated by growing demand for aquatic protein in Asia – a result of laudable development progress – and the uncertainty of future access fuelled by territorial disputes.

Garrett Hardin, author of The Tragedy of the Commons, laments the fate of oceans to “continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons”, as maritime nations “bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction”. Unlike the air, soil and freshwater pollution eliciting a public backlash in Asia, much of the South China Sea degradation is going on in relative silence.

Addressing this challenge requires accurate scientific assessments of the current state of play. In the South China Sea, this means regional scientists gathering data and sharing information. For geopolitical and environmental management experts and practitioners, the task is to bring the findings to people and institutions in positions to drive more sustainable policies.

In combination, these strategies can yield tangible environmental outcomes while helping to modestly desensitise the territorial dispute. Sharing more data and connecting with one another through structured and regular multilateral dialogue and, more ambitiously, joint scientific marine expeditions is a goal worth pursuing.

Such cooperation is no panacea, and scientific exchanges in the South China Sea will continually intersect with geopolitical realities in ways that risk making them only peripherally about the environment. Regardless of strategic tensions, however, claimant nations can ill-afford not to seek scientific common ground through environmental cooperation. The currents wait for no one, and with marine life fast disappearing and fisheries collapsing, the urgency for science cannot be ignored any longer.

James Borton is a journalist writing about the Mekong region and the South China Sea and most recently edited Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling. Jackson Ewing is a senior fellow at the Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions