Managing The South China Sea: Where Policy Meets Science

Recent Features


Managing The South China Sea: Where Policy Meets Science

The marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating these waters.

Managing The South China Sea: Where Policy Meets Science

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducting routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands in 2015.

Credit: Flickr/US Pacific Fleet

Environmental degradation remains at the center of scientific conversation on the South China Sea as more marine scientists sound the alarm about the environmental consequences of China’s island-building activities.

A Closer Look at the Problem

The problems facing the sea are as vast, deep, and seemingly intractable as the oceans themselves, and the need to address issues of acidification, biodiversity loss, climate change, and the destruction of coral reefs, is urgent.

At the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense, more analysts are spending time assessing China’s present course of accelerated militarization on reclaimed atolls and rocks in the contested and troubled South China Sea. However, environmental security is shaping the new conversation on the environmental stakes and challenges surfacing in these troubled waters.

Paul Berkman, oceanographer and former head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Program at the Scott Polar Research Institute, provided his own definition of environmental security. “It’s an integrated approach for assessing and responding to the risks as well as the opportunities generated by an environmental state-change.”

Make no mistake; the marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating these perilous geopolitical passages. Although not a new paradigm, more policy planners should devote study to establish the linkage that places the environment squarely as at center of national security.

The death or degradation of more reefs that can be traced to Chinese reclamation translates into less fish to feed the increasing populations in all nations with claims to the area. Sent by their governments to find food for their people, fishermen find themselves on the front lines of this new ecological battle. The maritime disputes between China and its neighbors are being fought by these fishing sentinels and their trawlers.

There is a looming food crisis and any effort to balance the economic benefits with the security context within the South China Sea will require a coordinated, multi-level response from scientists, historically engaged in collaborative research and already addressing issues of sustained productivity and environmental security in the region. The timing for a joint scientific declaration for urgent action on an environmental moratorium on dredging is much needed. This environmental change is a global issue that knows no borders.

Urgent Action Required

The destruction and depletion of marine resources in the Spratlys harms all claimant nations. Perhaps citizens from the region – who are directly impacted by the environmental attack on their sea and their fragile coral formations – can create something like a Coral Reef Action Network, similar to the global Rainforest Action Network.

Furthermore, it’s time to bring together the most qualified scientists who have experience studying the marine biodiversity and environmental sustainability in the troubled SCS waters to participate in a science policy forum. Their collaborative work may lead to the successful development of a South China Sea International Science Commission. As a result, their scientific efforts may than inspire the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to cooperate in responding to regional resource management by issuing a call for a moratorium on further damaging reclamation work.

Of course, China has many excellent coral reef scientists of its own who recognize it is in the best interests of Beijing to protect coral reefs, maintain sustainable fisheries, and to eventually avail themselves of eco-friendly tourism once tensions decline.

Thus, it came as a surprise and somewhat of a mystery to scientists last year why China insisted that the portions of the coral reefs on which they have built consisted of dead corals.

Dr. Wu Shicun, president and senior research fellow of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, claims that the Spratly Islands are territory of China, and that his country has adopted “green engineering” measures before, during, and after the completion of its entire reclamation in the South China Sea in order to protect the region’s ecology.

In an email, Wu claims that, “China carries out its construction projects on the inner reef flat where corals have basically died. China gathers loose soil for its land reclamation on the flat lagoon basin, which is not fit for coral growth. China has adopted “natural simulation,” applied a new type of “cutter-suction dredging and land reclamation method”, and has paid attention to the spread of sediment floating in its construction.”

There are many inconsistencies associated with his conservation assertions. I will try to highlight just some of them.

A recently aired BBC film featured highly destructive activities of Chinese fishers gathering giant clams at a reef between Thitu Island and Tieshi Jiao. There was no identifiable name for this reef; hence it is referred to it as “Checkmark Reef”, based on its shape.

The Diplomat’s contributor, Victor Robert Lee, also revealed for the first time that these fishers were anchoring small boats and pulling them in wide arcs with their propellers turning so as to dig into the sand and uncover giant clams. Google satellite imaging identified hundreds of these clam “cutter boats” on Checkmark Reef, resulting in large areas where sand and dead coral piled into arc-like ridges.

Two months ago, Professor John McManus, a prominent University of Miami marine biologist, who has been studying these reef formations since the early 1990s, traveled into the area of the Spratly Islands and completed underwater surveys, confirming the sand and dead coral were piled ridges with no signs of life.

Revisited satellite imagery from Google Earth of the Spratly Islands, confirms that for each of China’s newly constructed islands, the cutter boats had been operating on the reef prior to construction. Thus, it seems likely that when the coral reef scientists had been asked to assess each potential site, they truthfully reported that the coral was dead.

While the damage from giant clam cutter boats is recoverable, there is so much of this activity going on that it threatens to reduce the supply of fish larvae to prevent local extinctions along most of the over-fished coastlines of the South China Sea.

McManus claims that “these areas of living coral reef would have been killed as the sand and silt from dredging and island construction leaked out to envelop them, just as is happening around the cutter boats. It can take a reef in these areas a thousand years to create a meter or so of gravel, sand and silt, and so places from which they have been removed are essentially permanently altered.”

Coral reefs are the cathedrals of the South China Sea. It’s time for more citizens to join the chorus and rally around marine scientists so that they can “net” regional cooperation and ocean stewardship to benefit all – before it’s too late.

 James Borton is a faculty associate at the Walker Institute at the University of South Carolina and a non-resident fellow at the Saigon Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.