The overlooked casualty in the South China Sea dispute

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Political tensions in the South China Sea are creating an environmental disaster. Can claimants put aside their differences and tackle environmental threats before fishing stocks collapse?

The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint in regional politics. As claimants jostle for territory, beneath the turquoise waters the ominous threat of confrontation and instability bubbles.

The South China Sea is far more than the geopolitical stage. It is an environmental gem and a haven for marine life. However, the political conflict playing out on the surface imperils the future sustainability of life beneath the waves.

The South China sea is a rich and diverse marine ecosystem

With over 600 species of coral, 3,000 species of fish, and 1,500 species of sponge, the South China Sea represents one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. Endangered turtle species and dugongs call these waters home. All are now under threat.

Since 2013, many of the South China Sea’s claimant states (China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) have increased their military and commercial presence in the region to assert their sovereignty. Regional governments have encouraged their nation’s fishing vessels to increase their presence in the body of water to strengthen territorial claims.

China and Vietnam have both taken measures to expand the presence of their fishing militias— fishing vessels which serve part-time in the nations’ maritime militias. In 1995, China even introduced a long-distance sailing fuel subsidy, which provided fishermen with additional funds if they could show evidence that they had been operating in the contested Spratly Islands.

The overlooked casualty in the South China Sea dispute

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