Science and Politics in the South China Sea


This past summer, a scientific research vessel from the Philippines was crewed and provisioned, ready to set sail to the heart of the South China Sea to survey coral reefs, collect coral, fish, and other samples, and measure rising ocean temperatures. Then the Philippine government called it off—rising geopolitical tensions had scuttled the trip.

Scattered in the middle of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands are a heavily disputed assemblage of islands, reefs, and atolls. Malaysia, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan all lay claim to pieces of this oceanic real estate for various reasons, including access to oil and gas stores and commercial fisheries. For many research scientists, however, the value is in ecological data.

About two decades ago, researchers surmised that the Spratly Islands and the neighboring Scarborough reefs serve as an ecological reservoir for the South China Sea. Ocean models, backed up with genetics, showed that fish and coral from the Spratlys are carried by ocean currents to the coasts of surrounding countries, replenishing populations of vital fish. The planned Filipino expedition was intended to help validate those ocean models, and to monitor coral bleaching and other ocean parameters during this year’s strong El Niño.

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