South China Sea territorial clashes threaten environmental catastrophe


China’s mounting clashes with its neighbors over control of the South China Sea also could be fueling a major environmental catastrophe, endangering fishing stocks, threatening marine biodiversity and posing long-term threats to some of the globe’s most spectacular coral reefs.

Environmental scientists say the dangers are increasing as the conflicting sovereignty claims heat up between China and eight East Asian nations bordering one of the world’s most strategic maritime routes, which boasts an irreplaceable ecological harvest of atolls, submerged banks, islands, reefs, rock formations and over 3,000 species of fish.

Beijing’s accelerated land reclamation over these specks of rock in the roiling sea in recent years has only escalated the friction among claimants. In particular, China’s expansion in Johnson and Gaven reefs — also claimed at least in part by Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam — threatens to wreck rich fishing grounds and valuable coral reefs in the archipelago.

The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that the South China Sea accounts for as much as a tenth of global fish stocks. More than a quarter of the world’s population resides in the littoral nations of the sea.

The daily dumping of landfill with sand dug from nearby reefs by Chinese laborers “upsets the marine ecology of the region, completely destroying the formed coral reefs aging hundreds of millions of years,” said Le Van Cuong, former director of the Institute for Strategy and Science and a recognized authority on the South China Sea.

“At the same time, these actions destroy the habitat of many marine species. Protecting the marine ecological environment is a global issue, and citizens all over the world are responsible for that,” he said.