The Buzz

Is China Destroying the South China Sea?

China’s dredging activities in the South China Sea are significantly disrupting the region’s marine environment. As James Bortley reminds us, “the Spratly Islands’ immense biodiversity cannot be overlooked”.

In April the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs pointed out that China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea were causing “irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance”.

The statement noted that China’s activities have so far caused destruction of “over 300 hectares of coral reef systems, amounting to an annual economic loss of US$100 million”. The damage extends beyond the artificial islands into the waters of surrounding littoral states.

China was criticized for “tolerating harmful practices and harvesting of endangered species” that are protected under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

In pursuing its reclamation activities China should look to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS), to which it’s a party. Article 206 of UNCLOS states the following:

When States have reasonable grounds for believing that planned activities under their jurisdiction or control may cause substantial pollution of or significant and harmful changes to the marine environment, they shall, as far as practicable, assess the potential effects of such activities on the marine environment and shall communicate reports of the results of such assessments in the manner provided in article 205.[Article 205 refers to an obligation to publish reports.

There’s also a requirement under customary international law to undertake an environmental impact assessment—although the exact scope and content isn’t clear—where there’s a risk that the proposed activity may have a significant adverse impact in a transboundary context.

It’s surprising we haven’t seen environmental groups, mounting the kind of protests in the South China Sea that we saw a few years ago against Arctic oil exploration.

In September 2013, Greenpeace International used the Arctic Sunrise to stage a protest directed against an offshore fixed platform in the Barents Sea. The Russian coast guard intervened and detained two activists who’d climbed the platform.

In the Russian Federation’s exclusive economic zone, authorities of the Russian Federation took over control and detained the Arctic Sunrise, flying the Dutch flag, and took it to the port of Murmansk.

The crew of 30 persons were charged with the crime of piracy under Russian law and put in pre-trial detention.

In October that year, the Netherlands submitted the dispute to the arbitral procedure provided for in UNCLOS. In spite of the non-participation of the Russian Federation, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea prescribed that the Russian Federation was to immediately release ship and crew upon the posting by the Netherlands of a financial security.

In December 2013, the Russian Federation granted amnesty to the ‘Arctic 30’ and they were all able to leave the country.

One wonders about China’s reaction should any environmental NGO’s send protest ships as part of a campaign against reclamation activities, and how Beijing would view any subsequent legal action under UNCLOS if protestors were arrested.

China may well find it politically awkward to respond to non-state environmental protest ships, as opposed to grey-hulled vessels.

At this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue Admiral Sun Jianguo, the People’s Liberation Army’s deputy chief of general staff, stated that apart from “meeting the necessary defense needs”, China was carrying out construction on some islands and reefs in the South China Sea to better perform China’s international responsibilities and obligations regarding—among other purposes—environmental protection.

We should therefore be taking this issue up directly with China, asking them whether it’s conducted any environmental impact assessments for their reclamation work to date, and if so what their findings show. This may at least put a pause on the frenetic reclamation activities.

In raising this point with China we might point out that when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef we here in Australia prohibit dredging for the development of new ports or the expansion of existing ports, outside the long-established port areas of the region.

Along with the other legitimate strategic concerns that we have in the South China Sea, Australian diplomats and military leaders should be highlighting the environmental impacts of China’s reclamation activities in the area.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Creative Commons.