Of all the “strategic” challenges confronting the Asia-Pacific region, none is as underrated as the destruction of the marine ecosystem. The South China Sea’s status as a critical waterway draws attention away from the fact that littoral Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse global marine bio-systems, hosting 76 percent of the world’s coral species and 37 percent of reef-fish species. Over the past two decades there have been documented instances of Chinese fishermen in the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters indulging in large-scale illegal capture of fish using cyanide, dynamite, and detonating cords. The wide range of sea life targeted has included endangered sea turtles, giant clams, giant oysters, sharks, eels, and large pieces of highly ornamental coral.
In the wake of a UN tribunal’s quashing of Beijing’s claim to historic rights in the South China Sea, what has been largely overlooked is the court’s censure of Beijing’s rampant destruction of marine life around the sites of its reclamation and other activities in the Spratly Islands. The construction, the judges held, had “caused permanent and irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.” Yet Chinese leaders refuse to accept the tribunal’s criticism. Beijing, in fact, denies its island-building posed any danger to the natural habitat of the region, even calling it a model “green project”.