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Why South China Sea island claimants won’t be moved by plight of coral reefs any time soon

2019-01-28 16:01:50       source:NISCSS

January 16, 2019

James Borton and Jackson Ewing reprise the romantic proposal for a cooperative environmental protection regime in the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea in “As nations fight for control, South China Sea coral reefs are dying in silence” (December 29). Unfortunately their piece undermines the argument for what they advocate, by ignoring reality and thus making it harder to convince already sceptical policymakers of its necessity and urgency.


China destroyed many coral reefs in the Spratlys in its state-sponsored construction binge, and in its allowing the destructive “mining” of giant clams. The other claimants also engaged in construction on features they occupy. But long before their environmental and ecological depredations there, fishermen – particularly from the Philippines – engaged in very destructive fishing using muro ami nets, explosives and poison there over many years. Pollution from passing ships is also a factor in damaging the atoll ecosystems.


These facts do not excuse what China and others did in recent times. But, if one is advocating acceptance by policymakers of cooperation in environmental protection, it is important to tell a complete and balanced story, rather than single out any one country for blame.

China has tacitly acknowledged its damage by initiating a programme to restore the coral reef ecosystem (“Beijing to restore coral reefs after island building in South China Sea”, January 2). This may well be too little too late and the proof will be in the pudding, but it would be good if other contributors to the environmental damage in the area followed suit.


Previous efforts for true multilateral cooperative environmental management in the South China Sea and the Spratlys have been ineffective in reducing pollution, direct environmental damage and overfishing. The main obstacle has always been mutual suspicion generated by the jurisdictional disputes.


Nationalism is the fundamental driver of national policy in this arena. Voluntarily subordinating sovereignty to a greater human good could be used against a nation in future negotiations or arbitration. That is the primary obstacle to agreeing to a sharing or cooperation scheme of any kind for any reason – including for protecting and preserving the environment of the South China Sea.


For the prospective participants in a cooperative environmental management regime, the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits. Until this perception changes, such a regime is unlikely to take root.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China



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