The overlooked casualty in the South China Sea dispute

Photo Credit: Department of Defense

Political tensions in the South China Sea are creating an environmental disaster. Can claimants put aside their differences and tackle environmental threats before fishing stocks collapse?

By Oliver Ward

The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint in regional politics. As claimants jostle for territory, beneath the turquoise waters the ominous threat of confrontation and instability bubbles.

The South China Sea is far more than the geopolitical stage. It is an environmental gem and a haven for marine life. However, the political conflict playing out on the surface imperils the future sustainability of life beneath the waves.

The South China sea is a rich and diverse marine ecosystem

With over 600 species of coral, 3,000 species of fish, and 1,500 species of sponge, the South China Sea represents one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. Endangered turtle species and dugongs call these waters home. All are now under threat.

Since 2013, many of the South China Sea’s claimant states (China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) have increased their military and commercial presence in the region to assert their sovereignty. Regional governments have encouraged their nation’s fishing vessels to increase their presence in the body of water to strengthen territorial claims.

China and Vietnam have both taken measures to expand the presence of their fishing militias— fishing vessels which serve part-time in the nations’ maritime militias. In 1995, China even introduced a long-distance sailing fuel subsidy, which provided fishermen with additional funds if they could show evidence that they had been operating in the contested Spratly Islands.

Source: CSIS

Geopolitics is wreaking havoc on the delicate ecosystem

The South China Sea owes much of its biodiversity to its offshore reefs. These natural bastions of marine life have been the target of China’s recent construction efforts to shore up its military presence.

Beijing has built artificial islands on reefs by dredging coral sands and paving over the reef with concrete. This widespread construction, among other activities such as giant clam harvesting, has destroyed more than 160km² of offshore reefs, and created sediment plumes that have disrupted some 4,300km² of reef in the region.

Although Vietnam is also engaged in Island-building, its methods are less destructive, making China the culprit for around 99% of reef damage in the South China Sea.

While reef destruction contributes to the problem of declining fish stocks, it only tells part of the story. The lack of regional cooperation over fisheries has let destructive fishing practices go unchecked.

More than 50% of the world’s total fishing vessels operate in the South China Sea. Using a Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite Boat Detection (VIIRS) product, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that the overall level of fishing activity in the region is increasing annually, particularly around Chinese and Vietnamese constructions in the Spratlys.

The size and quantity of the vessels fishing around the Spratlys indicate that sustainable fishing is not taking place. Without regional cooperation on fisheries management, stocks are at risk of collapsing, which would trigger an environmental and economic disaster.

The political impasse threatens the livelihood of millions across the region

An estimated 3.7 million people rely on the South China Sea fisheries for their livelihoods, although given the prevalence of illegal fishing and the informal workforce, this figure is likely an extreme underestimate (in Malaysia, for example, only a third of small-scale fishers are licensed).

In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that to ensure sustainable fishing in the South China Sea, there would have to be a 50-60% reduction of fishing activities. Given the annual increase in fishing efforts, the necessary reduction to preserve future fish stocks is now likely to be far higher.

What would a solution look like?

Breaking the political impasse to protect the fragile ecosystems in the South China Sea should be a priority. However, the latest effort to break the deadlock, the negotiation of a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea, is unlikely to offer much solace to environmentalists.

Scott Moore, a water resource specialist at the World Bank Group Water Global Practice, told ASEAN Today, “I don’t think the COC will cover this.” He elaborated, “many of the Southeast Asian countries look at it as a crucial resource zone,” therefore turning diplomatic engagement between rival claimants into a plan for environmental remediation will be difficult.

The establishment of a regional fisheries management body in the COC would be an ideal scenario. But getting all claimant nations to agree to a fixed set of rules regarding fisheries would be near impossible. Even if they did agree to a comprehensive set of rules (or adopted a set based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea UNCLOS), it could take decades to implement.

One avenue which could yield better results, John McManus, a marine ecologist and professor at the Rosenstiel School at the University of Miami, told ASEAN Today, would be through an alternative agreement through which claimants agreed to cease claim-supporting activities for a fixed period of time.

McManus wrote in an email, “the difficulty with including the freeze agreements in the COC is that it is not time-limited,” he added, “thus a separate renewable treaty would be best.”

Alongside a renewable agreement, environmentalists revived the idea of establishing a marine peace park at the Sixth World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016. A peace park would take the form of a transnational protected area in the Greater Spratly Island region devoted to the preservation of the marine ecosystem.

A peace park was established in the Red Sea between Israel and Jordan to tackle ecological threats in the northern Gulf of Aqaba which has enjoyed success.   

There are indications that this idea could prove effective in the South China Sea as well. “Both Vietnam and Malaysia have already set up national marine protected areas in the Spratly area,” McManus asserts. The domestic laws within China, the Philippines and Vietnam regulating protected areas are also aligned and compatible. This means each state could set up a protected area under their claim under national law and there would be substantial legal harmony.

Taiwan has also been open to the idea in the past. Under President Ma, its government announced its intentions to cooperate with international conservation organisations to establish a marine peace park.

How do you sell the idea of a Peace Park to member states?

However, the challenge in pursuading claimant states to implement a Greater Spratly peace park lies in convincing them of the economic benefits. Moore said, “China has signed up to a number of fisheries conservation agreements, but its policy has always been a bit schizophrenic because its vast fishing fleet employs hundreds of thousands of people and it doesn’t want to threaten their livelihoods.”

For McManus, a peace park doesn’t have to cause economic decline. He believes income raised by tourists visiting the region would be able to match, or even surpass the fishing industry. “Tourist income, once one includes related income sources such as airline tickets, boat fees, and purchases on shore, is potentially worth more in regional income than fishing,” he said.

The Spratly Islands
Photo Credit: Tadashi Mori/Flickr

It may also depend on factors outside of the control of most member states

Even if claimant states can be convinced of the benefits of conservation and the idea of a Peace Park— which is a big if—there are other factors at play that could scupper its implementation.

“A prime objective of Chinese bases is to enable detection and interception of military threats from the US or its allies,” McManus said. The advanced fighter jets stationed on Chinese bases in the South China Sea and the vast radar coverage indicate that Beijing’s militarisation of the region is being undertaken with a more powerful foe in mind than the other claimant states.

“Thus, some kind of mutual treaty between PRC [the People’s Republic of China] and the US may be necessary before any down-scaling of military facilities will be possible,” McManus wrote. He added, “there could certainly be a peace park agreement which excludes such outposts, but it would be a much better park with less armament.”

A dual-track approach is necessary

The peace park solution is ambitious and is unlikely to materialise in the near future. However, a dual-track approach involving both formal negotiations between claimant states and informal cooperation amongst environmentalists, scientists and NGOs is essential for protecting the future survival of fish stocks in the South China Sea.

If nothing is done to curb reef destruction, reduce pollution, and manage fisheries, simulation models indicate that by 2045, all species of fish will see their numbers reduced by between 9% and 59% from current levels. Larger species like shark, bream and grouper will be hit hardest and will likely drop by more than 50%.

At the heart of the issue is too many people relying on too limited fish stocks, and the political impasse has robbed the South China Sea of protective mechanisms. Until these mechanisms can be implemented, the future livelihoods of some 3.7 million citizens are in peril.