A new book reveals that China’s aggressive behavior at the South China Sea is not just creating tensions in the region, but also destroying ecosystems that hundreds of millions of people depend on. Worse, China refuses to play a constructive role in solving the problems it has contributed to.
ATLANTA – The South China Sea is a striking example of Sino-American strategic rivalry. With the US and Chinese warships increasingly playing chess, and China turning atolls and outcroppings in to militarized artificial islands, it’s clear that the US and China are increasingly playing chicken. China’s assertive assertion of offshore sovereignty does not only challenge other territorial rights and the free navigation of international ocean lanes, but also challenges their strategic rivals. It is also threatening a key feature of the Southeast Asian ecosystem and the region’s future economic growth.
China has refused submission of its territorial claims for international review, despite the fact that six of the ten South China Sea countries have claims to different rocks, shoals and reefs within its 1.4million-square mile area. China has also ignored the Permanent Court of Arbitrations 2016 rulingThe Philippines has always held the Spratly Islands as their historic property. China has a claim to almost 90% of the South China Sea, based on the nine-dash line.
The South China Sea territorial crisis is a concern for 600 million people in Southeast Asia. China’s actions are already threatening the maritime ecosystems and livelihoods of the region. This is the central lesson of the book Dispatches from South China Sea – Navigating to Common GroundJames Borton from the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. Borton doesn’t care about geopolitics, but focuses on the truth: Chinese exploitation in the South China Sea threatens the region’s future due to the ecological, economic, and environmental damage it is causing.
Bortons’ story is centered around fishing. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 15-56%Depending on where you live, most of the animal protein consumed in Southeast Asia comes directly from the seas nearby. This bounty is evident in the global market. Even though it is only 2.5% of all the oceans on the planet, the South China Sea accounts for 12% world fish catch. Borton claims that half the world’s 3.2million registered fishing boats are based there.
Overfishing is a growing global problem. China contributes disproportionately to it with its long distance fishing fleet of 2,500 vessels (a number that rises up to 17,000 if one includes unregistered or illegal vessels). Borton collects first-hand accounts from fishermen, officials, and researchers to show the extent of South China Sea’s precious resources. There are approximately 2,500 species that live in its waters. However, catch rates have decreased by 70% and large fish stocks have shrunk 90% since 2000.
China has unilaterally issued fishing bans for years to protect its fish stocks. In 2021, China adopted a new law that empowered its coast guards to use force against any suspected violators. Yet, China’s maritime militia has driven boats from other countries, but Chinese fishing operations are prohibited in the world’s proscribed areas. Continue readingChina alone brings in 20% of the world’s annual catch.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Our newest magazine, The Year Ahead 2022: ReckoningsYou can find it here. To get your printed copy delivered to you wherever you are in the globe, click here Subscribe to PSFor less than $9 per month.
As a PSSubscribers get unlimited access to our On Point suite which includes premium long-form content and Say More contributor interviews. The Big Picture topical collections are also available. PS archive.
China’s island building has serious ecological consequences. Borton estimates that around half of the coral reefs in the South China Sea have been lost. Climate change is causing coral reefs to disappear around the globe. But the PCA says otherwise. NotedChina has made it easier for this destruction in South China Sea with its 2016 ruling. They have dredged up more than 100 square mile of healthy coral reefs to make artificial islands.
Borton sees South China Sea crisis’ failure to resolve as a sign that there is an ecological disaster. Borton highlights the contributions of scientists, researchers and concerned officials and helps us to understand the nature of this problem and its possible solutions. He writes that the South China Sea needs scientific cooperation and open access data. Science diplomacy is a way to establish a base for regional cooperation and to provide a much-needed pause from rising tension.
It is also a sign of trouble that the Chinese government failed to act during the global COVID crisis. It has. RefusedWhile expanding its territorial claims elsewhere, it has failed to provide basic information on the ecological impact of its island construction. Its strong-armed tactics and constant militarization of its new offshore real estate do not suggest that it is willing to share data or play a constructive part in the preservation of the region’s ecosystems.
Borton is correct to say that scientists and citizens need to work together to find ways to reconcile the political divide in South China Sea. However, China’s intransigence may make it more difficult for businesses to take the steps that he suggests. The private sector is creating new tools to shed more light on the matter, from start-ups and technology giants to the extremes. Satellite systems and artificial Intelligence are already available being usedto analyze large quantities of climate data for clients or researchers. Microsoft, Google and Amazon are Gathering and publishingMore climate data is available, and business leaders such as Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, are encouraging companies to align their operations with global climate goals.
Borton’s overview of the South China Sea crisis is helpful, but it does not guarantee that those who have the resources to solve the problem will do so.