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South China Sea coral reef destruction 'recoverable', Chinese think-tank chief says

2016-01-27 14:35:45       source:ABC News

By China correspondent Bill Birtles

January 25, 2016

One of China's leading voices on the South China Sea has rejected concerns about damage to tropical reefs caused by Beijing's island-building program, saying it will be "recoverable".

The president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Wu Shicun, said strict ecological protection measures were guiding the construction China is carrying out on seven reefs.

The "green construction ethos" of the project "ensures the affected area is as small as possible, the time period [of construction] is as short as possible and the level of impact is minimal", according to a translation of Mr Wu's response to questions from the ABC.

In a bid to allay environmental concerns, he said the construction was on reefs that are "already dead".

Mr Wu said the material being dredged to reinforce the new facilities was "dead coral debris".

Although not an official spokesman, Wu Shicun's organisation is overseen by the powerful State Council.

While China is by no means the only country to have carried out construction work in the hotly-contested area, the speed and scale of Beijing's island-building in the past three years has caused the most diplomatic concern — and environmental concerns are rising.

"Dredging an isolated atoll is irreversible once a shallow reef flat is covered in mud and sand to create an aircraft runway," Terry Hughes, a coral reef specialist at James Cook University in Townsville, said.

Professor Hughes has previously published research with Chinese scientists on the health of South China Sea coral.

"It's not scientifically credible to claim that massive dredging projects in the SCS have no environmental impact," he said.

Research, published in 2012, showed that coral abundance was already down to about 20 per cent on the remote reefs prior to China beginning its massive construction drive.

Other marine experts have previously warned reef-building organisms along with larger marine life are likely to be killed when sand is dredged from within coral atolls.

But the construction shows no sign of slowing down.

For the first time this month, China landed civilian aircraft on a new runway at Fiery Cross Reef, triggering an official protest from Vietnam.

China's Foreign Ministry has claimed the artificial islands are for "civilian" purposes, including search-and-rescue missions and even scientific research.

But it also said there were defence facilities on the islands.

Beijing has not ruled out further militarisation of the area, but blames other countries, primarily the United States, for increasing military tensions.

In Octoberthe US sailed a warship past one of the Chinese-built islands, causing a serious diplomatic rift.

Royal Australian Air Force planes have also carried out "freedom of navigation" exercises in airspace over the South China Sea, in what the Defence Force described as "routine patrols".

Six other nations have overlapping claims, with Vietnam and Taiwan also recently carrying out smaller-scale construction work on islands they occupy in the Spratly archipelago.

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