Can Beijing bring the South China Sea’s ravaged coral reefs back to life?

Liu Zhen

China has embarked on a decade-long plan to revive the ravaged marine life of the South China Sea, creating a body to protect coral reefs amid criticism that its island building and fishing have devastated marine life in the disputed waters.

Experts from various agencies – including the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences – will contribute to a China coral reef protection association set up this month in Hainan under the umbrella of the agriculture ministry.

Experts said China was working harder to prevent further damage to the area’s ecology, but those efforts might be hampered by fishing and by complications of rival territorial claims on the waters.

The South China Sea is strategically sensitive and much of it is claimed by China, while the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have made smaller claims.

Subi Reef is one of several artificial islands claimed and developed by Beijing in the South China Sea. Photo: EPA-EFE

According to the 10-year plan released this month by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, China has to contain erosion of coral in key reefs and create conservation areas to protect 90 per cent of the area’s coral by 2030.

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A report released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences along with the action plan said coral was declining throughout the waters but the Spratly Islands had the greatest diversity of coral reef species “in China”.

“In recent years, under the dual influence of human activities and climate change, the coverage of coral reef in different regions has declined,” the report said. “Human activity is considered to be a major factor in the degradation of coral reef building in the South China Sea.”

In January, the Ministry of Natural Resources said China had installed facilities to protect and revive coral growth on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, the three biggest of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Asserting its territorial claims, China in recent years has built artificial islands to house military facilities at seven geographical features across the Spratlys and encouraged fishing in the waters. Other Southeast Asian nations have made similar moves, but on a smaller scale.

China has long been aware of the ecological deterioration in the sensitive waters, but years of bitter territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbours have overshadowed efforts to address the problem.

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada said marine resources in the South China Sea had fallen to between five and 30 per cent of their 1950 levels because of unregulated fishing, with marine fauna such as dugongs – once abundant along the coasts of Malaysia and southern China – now rare.

In 2016, in a case brought by the Philippines, an international tribunal ruled that China’s land reclamation operations and construction of artificial islands “had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment”.

“The effects of these impacts on the reefs, together with altered hydrodynamics and released nutrients, are likely to have wide-ranging and long-lasting ecological consequences for the affected reefs and the wider ecosystem of the Spratly Islands, and possibly beyond,” it said.

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The tribunal also found that China was aware of the damage its illegal fishing was causing the coral ecosystem and that it had failed to stop such activities.

David Baker, an assistant professor of marine science at the University of Hong Kong, said China was taking a “top-down” approach to ecological protection of the South China Sea, with enforcement of other measures, such as a fishing ban, beginning in the summer.

“One of the things I think comes in concert with China’s sovereign claims over the South China Sea is also environmental stewardship. What really worries me is that the island building is also happening,” Baker said.

“We have to be ever vigilant when it comes to enforcing the rules, but the climate is pretty positive overall. In mainland China, the environment is equally positive for conservation.”

Chinese fishing boats set sail for the South China Sea. Photo: Getty Images

But he warned of risks to those efforts.

“I think a lot of it [preservation in the South China Sea] is undermined by the sociopolitical context and interest groups, particularly powerful fishing industries, when you think about it,” he said.

“I don’t see anyone investing in the South China Sea as if it were a bank. Instead, everyone is taking as much as they can and leaving the future with nothing.”

The conservation work by China might also be seen by rival claimants as Beijing’s move to exert control over the waters.

In January, Philippine congressman Gary Alejano said rehabilitation “could be just one of the many ways of China’s occupation”.

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Richard Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila, said there was a serious debate about the sequence of negotiations over the South China Sea and whether cooperation, including environmental protection, should precede boundaries and settlement of territorial claims.

“The Chinese position seems to be ‘We can move forward with environmental cooperation as early as now’, while smaller claimant states legitimately fear it may be used to strengthen China’s expansive [territorial] claims,” Heydarian said.

“The problem, however, is that a rapid environmental time bomb is outpacing the snail’s pace of sovereignty and boundary negotiations.”

Divers set up stands for corals in waters off Hainan province. Photo: Xinhua

Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative think tank at Peking University, said a South China Sea code of conduct being negotiated between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should include a clause on environmental protection.

Hu said China’s conservation efforts involving its neighbours were difficult, but that Beijing should start with international cooperation outside the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Additional reporting by Albert Han

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