The South China Sea: A Looming Environmental Disaster?


Most of the attention in the South China Sea has focused on China’s military activities. But the impending natural disaster there is also cause for concern. As a recent report makes clear there’s been significant coral loss due to seawater warming. But apart from ocean warming, the Chinese government, through over-fishing and reef destruction, is contributing to the devastation.

The Arbitral Tribunal’s award at The Hague in July 2016, in The Philippines v China, found that Beijing’s construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea obligations to protect the marine environment. As James Borton reminds us, the Spratly Islands’ immense biodiversity can’t be overlooked.

Beijing suggests that its island building efforts are a ‘Green Project’. The Chinese government claims its techniques simulate the natural processes of weather as sea storms blow away and move biological scraps which gradually evolve into an oasis on the sea.

John McManus, from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, has highlighted the impact of island expansion on Scarborough Atoll, Pratas Atoll, the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands corals to a point beyond which they will be unable to recover. Damaged coral reefs wont be able to keep up with rising sea levels. Last year McManus concluded that 40 square miles (104 square km) of some of the most biodiverse coral reefs on Earth have been destroyed in the South China Sea thanks to giant-clam poachers.