South China Sea: the far-reaching consequences of island-building


WASHINGTON – What has been largely overlooked in the conversation to date around China’s campaign of dredging and construction in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is the necessary synthesis between the geopolitical and environmental aspects of the issue.

In recent months, U.S. Navy patrols in the South China Sea and denouncements by high-ranking U.S. officials have brought international attention to the troubling security implications of China’s actions.

A secondary line of reporting across the English-speaking world has also emphasized the ecological damage this artificial island-building is causing to a large system of coral reefs, with high-resolution satellite data illustrating the extent and pace of the damage.

With regard to these two lines of analysis — security and ecology — the conversation to date has been notably and regrettably stove-piped.

To be clear, China’s actions is a violation of international law, a potential precursor to interference in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and a catalyst for military confrontation.

The worst case scenario — wherein the People’s Liberation Army Navy is able to “lock down” the South China Sea and prevent freedom of navigation by, say, a U.S. Navy carrier strike group or liquefied natural gas tankers headed for Japan — is worrisome on multiple levels.

But geopolitical concerns actually go hand in hand with ecological concerns.

The Spratly Islands’ coral reefs serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for nearly 400 fish species, including various commercially important stocks.

Read more: