Since 2013, China has been engaged in an ambitious program of island building on the coral reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands, a disputed island chain in the South China Sea. The program is part of an effort to bolster Chinese claims of sovereignty in the region, which overlap with those of five other countries—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—plus Taiwan.
So far, global attention has been focused almost exclusively on the security implications of China’s island building. Over the last few years, the U.S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in order to challenge Beijing’s control of the waterways. And in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled unanimously against China’s extensive territorial claims—a decision that the other claimants (and Washington) applauded and Beijing immediately rejected.
Yet while the political implications of Chinese actions have been put front and center, the environmental consequences have often been overlooked. The island building has wreaked havoc on the fragile coral reefs and endangered marine life in the South China Sea. In fact, this environmental angle may present an opportunity to place further international pressure on Beijing: the PCA, in addition to rejecting China’s ownership claims, ruled that it had caused irreversible environmental damage through its island building, which was in clear violation of Articles 192 and 194 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The court declared that China “has 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.”