Catch-22 in the South China Sea: why preserving fish stocks is key to a resolution

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Despite upcoming talks, Manila’s deferential stance to Beijing, and wider ASEAN disunity, mean no end in sight for China’s island-building in the South China Sea. Yet those islands will destroy the coral reefs they are built on, and the very fish stocks China wants to control in the first place.
 
China’s provocations and ASEAN’s impotence
Chinese and Filipino diplomats are still deciding when and where to pick up talks on the South China Sea in 2018, but in terms of substance, the two sides are already on the same page. Li Keqiang of China and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines spent the 31st ASEAN summit in October jointly insisting a “code of conduct” could stabilise tensions in the South China Sea – but failed to mask the lack of real progress.
 
The current state of affairs already represents a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. The Philippines, host of this year’s ASEAN summit, has effectively abandoned an unequivocal 2016 ruling in its favour from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) over China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters.
 
China rejected the validity of both the ruling and the PCA’s authority, but the Philippines and its ASEAN partners also failed to stand by the decision. Among member states, only Vietnam has come out in direct support of the PCA decision. China already ignores a 2002 declaration of conduct applying to the South China Sea. There is no indication any new code would be more binding.
 
This is unfortunate, because the PCA ruling addressed some of the most urgent ramifications of China’s actions in the region. It was particularly scathing in regard to environmental violations, stating “China had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”
 
The inherent irony of the dispute is that dredging the sea floor to construct artificial islands endangers the very fisheries Beijing seeks to control. China’s own territorial waters are dead zones as a result of overfishing and industrial pollution, one of the main drivers for China’s claims in the South China Sea. Despite this, China marked the end of the summit (and last month’s visit from Donald Trump) by launching its new “magic island-maker” in a clear sign the island-building campaign is far from over.
 
Not that China is solely responsible. The failure of ASEAN to present a united front puts the resource-rich waters and the millions who rely on their declining fishing stocks for food and employment at risk. By leaving member states to fend for themselves against China, the bloc is undermining its own commitments to support environmental conservation and sustainability as well as international law.
 
Political concerns trump environmental imperatives
Preserving fish stocks and the ecological balance of the region as a whole requires concerted multilateral action of the sort current tensions render impractical. As early as 1992, scientists were proposing that the Spratley islands be designated as an international ecological marine park. At that point, the islands were not much more than atolls and rocks incapable of sustaining human habitation.
 
Since then, attempts at preservation have largely been unilateral and confined to respective Exclusive Economic Zones. As of late 2016, the Philippines intended to declare a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone in the area that it claimed as its own, in spite of competing Chinese claims.
 
Catch-22 in the South China Sea: why preserving fish stocks is key to a resolution
Catch-22 in the South China Sea: why preserving fish stocks is key to a resolution
by Nicholas Leong , December 10, 2017
Despite upcoming talks, Manila’s deferential stance to Beijing, and wider ASEAN disunity, mean no end in sight for China’s island-building in the South China Sea. Yet those islands will destroy the coral reefs they are built on, and the very fish stocks China wants to control in the first place.
 
China’s provocations and ASEAN’s impotence
Chinese and Filipino diplomats are still deciding when and where to pick up talks on the South China Sea in 2018, but in terms of substance, the two sides are already on the same page. Li Keqiang of China and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines spent the 31st ASEAN summit in October jointly insisting a “code of conduct” could stabilise tensions in the South China Sea – but failed to mask the lack of real progress.
 
The current state of affairs already represents a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. The Philippines, host of this year’s ASEAN summit, has effectively abandoned an unequivocal 2016 ruling in its favour from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) over China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters.
 
China rejected the validity of both the ruling and the PCA’s authority, but the Philippines and its ASEAN partners also failed to stand by the decision. Among member states, only Vietnam has come out in direct support of the PCA decision. China already ignores a 2002 declaration of conduct applying to the South China Sea. There is no indication any new code would be more binding.
 
This is unfortunate, because the PCA ruling addressed some of the most urgent ramifications of China’s actions in the region. It was particularly scathing in regard to environmental violations, stating “China had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”
 
The inherent irony of the dispute is that dredging the sea floor to construct artificial islands endangers the very fisheries Beijing seeks to control. China’s own territorial waters are dead zones as a result of overfishing and industrial pollution, one of the main drivers for China’s claims in the South China Sea. Despite this, China marked the end of the summit (and last month’s visit from Donald Trump) by launching its new “magic island-maker” in a clear sign the island-building campaign is far from over.
 
Not that China is solely responsible. The failure of ASEAN to present a united front puts the resource-rich waters and the millions who rely on their declining fishing stocks for food and employment at risk. By leaving member states to fend for themselves against China, the bloc is undermining its own commitments to support environmental conservation and sustainability as well as international law.
 
Political concerns trump environmental imperatives
Preserving fish stocks and the ecological balance of the region as a whole requires concerted multilateral action of the sort current tensions render impractical. As early as 1992, scientists were proposing that the Spratley islands be designated as an international ecological marine park. At that point, the islands were not much more than atolls and rocks incapable of sustaining human habitation.
 
Since then, attempts at preservation have largely been unilateral and confined to respective Exclusive Economic Zones. As of late 2016, the Philippines intended to declare a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone in the area that it claimed as its own, in spite of competing Chinese claims.
 
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