Environmental Ramifications of the South China Sea Conflict: Vying for Regional Dominance at the Environment’s Expense

July 12, 2018 by Georgetown Environmental Law Review

A view of the South China Sea

By Chloe Houdre, Staff Contributor

The South China Sea is an environmental gem. It is also the site of an intense geopolitical conflict. How did this conflict emerge, and what is it doing to this unique ecosystem?

The South China Sea is an environmental gem. It is also the site of an intense geopolitical conflict. China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have all made claims to the islands in the South China Sea. The two major disputed island groups are the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. The conflict emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, and it is closely related to the rise of modern China.

China and its neighbors are vying for natural resources, maritime and air space, territorial sovereignty, and dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and globally. Recently, the aforementioned countries have escalated their activities to legitimize their claims to territorial and maritime sovereignty. In doing so, these countries have had a devastating impact on the natural environment of the South China Sea. Much authorship on the South China Sea conflict approaches the topic from a geopolitical perspective. Few academics have written about the conflict from an environmental lens; this short piece strives to continue the environmental conversation.

The South China Sea is home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. It includes around 600 species of coral reef,[1] 3000 species of fish, and 1500 species of sponge.[2] Some of these species are endangered.[3] These species are important not only in their own right, but also because they “interact with each other and their physical environment in order to survive.”[4] Corals, for example, support marine species, protect coasts, and serve as the pillars of fisheries.[5] In fact, in 2016, the South China Sea produced 16.6 million tons of catch, supported by corals.[6] Less is known about the islands in the South China Sea. However, researchers have found they are home to a variety of mangrove and seagrass species, turtles, and seabirds that use the islands for resting, breeding, and wintering.[7]

Over several centuries, human activity has degraded this fragile environment. The major contributing factors have been sea pollution from ships using the Sea’s trade routes;[8] land and sea pollution from the rapid economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region; and overfishing.[9]

The escalation of the conflict in the South China Sea has compounded these long-term problems in multiple ways. First, since 2013 five of the claimant-countries – led by China – have accelerated their efforts to build artificial islands in the South China Sea to claim sovereignty.[10] China uses an especially harmful process to build these islands.[11] Second, the conflict has caused claimant-countries to encourage their people to fish with the goal of strengthening the territorial claims of these countries.[12] The conflict has also made cooperation on fishery management more difficult. Third, the militarization of the South China Sea dispute has increased air and water pollution.[13] Fourth, the conflict has encouraged claimant-countries to drill for hydrocarbons,[14] which disrupts the ecosystem, causes pollution, and risks leaks.[15]

The primary body of international law applicable to this dispute is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”).[16] UNCLOS establishes protections for the marine environment.[17] The Permanent Court of Arbitration in Philippines v. China agreed that China’s fishing practices and island-building activities were severely damaging, and in violation of Articles 192 and 194 of UNCLOS.[18] Yet, China neither accepted nor participated in the proceedings,[19] and it has not abided by the tribunal’s directives that China comply with UNCLOS.

Though the Philippines v. China award has had little to no impact, it serves to bring awareness to China’s environmental degradation in the South China Sea. But China is not the only culprit. All countries pushing for sovereignty in the South China Sea are contributing to the demise of its unique ecosystems. The time has come for these countries to cease disregarding environmental protections at any cost.

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[1] Mike Ives, The Rising Environmental Toll of China’s Offshore Island Grab, Yale Environment 360 (2016), https://e360.yale.edu/features/rising_environmental_toll_china_artificial_islands_south_china_sea.

[2] Expert Report of Dr. rer. Nat. Sebastian C.A. Ferse, Professor Peter Mumby, PhD and Dr. Selina Ward, PhD on the Assessment of the Potential Environmental Consequences of Construction Activities on Seven Reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China (Perm. Ct. Arb. 2016), https://www.pcacases.com/web/sendAttach/1809.

[3] The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China 323 (Perm. Ct. Arb 2016), available at https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Award.pdf.

[4] Edward J. Goodwin, International Environmental Law and the Conservation of Coral Reefs 10 (2011).

[5] Id. at 12.

[6] Christopher Pala, Official Statistics Understate Global Fish Catch, New Estimate Concludes, Science (Jan. 19, 2016), http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/official-statistics-understate-global-fish-catch-new-estimate-concludes.

[7] South China Sea, between the Philippines, Borneo, Vietnam, and China, World Wildlife Foundation, https://www.worldwildlife.org/ecoregions/im0148 (last visited Jun. 1, 2016).

[8] Beina Xu, South China Sea Tensions, Council on Foreign Relations, May 14, 2014, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/south-china-sea-tensions.

[9] Kuan-Hsiung Wang, Study on the Experiences in Managing Regional Fishery Resources in East Asia: With Special Reference to the South China Sea, in International Symposium on “Sustainable Development and the Law of the Sea,” 61-79 (2014).

[10] Derek Watkins, What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea, N.Y. Times (Oct. 27, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea.html; see also Land Reclamation by Country, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/ (last accessed May 10, 2017).

[11] China generally builds islands from scratch, as opposed to building the islands on top of existing coral reefs. To build entirely artificial islands, China uses dredging ships with propellers to break up coral reefs. Then, it pours sand on to living coral, blocking their access to sunlight, and paves the final product with concrete. This can lower the sea floor, change wave patterns, hinder the food supply of marine fish, and harm red algae. Vietnam is a country that uses the less invasive method of island-building. It builds expansions on pre-existing features, which does not require dredging. Washed Away, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, https://amti.csis.org/typhoon-spotlights-island-building/ (comparing Vietnam’s land artificial island-building process to China’s) (last accessed May 11, 2017). See also US Navy: Beijing Creating a ‘Great Wall of Sand’ in South China Sea, The Guardian (March 31, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/31/china-great-wall-sand-spratlys-us-navy.

[12] International Institute for Strategic Studies, Regional Disorder: The South China Sea Disputes 36-39 (Routledge ed., 2013).

[13] See generally Andrew S. Erickson & Connor M. Kennedy, China’s Maritime Militia, Foreign Affairs (June 23, 2016), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-06-23/chinas-maritime-militia. See also Costs of War: Environmental Costs, Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/environment (last accessed June 8, 2017).

[14] Jane Perlez, Philippines and China Ease Tensions in Rift at Sea, N.Y. Times (June 18, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/world/asia/beijing-and-manila-ease-tensions-in-south-china-sea.html.

[15] Seven Ways Oil and Gas Drilling is Bad for the Environment, The Wilderness Society, http://wilderness.org/seven-ways-oil-and-gas-drilling-bad-news-environment (last accessed April 14, 2017).

[16] U.N. Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, U.N. Conv. on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 UNTS 3 / [1994] ATS 31 / 21 ILM 1261, available at http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf.

[17] Id.

[18] The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China, (Perm. Ct. Arb 2016).

[19] Id. at 356.