With the ports of Singapore at one end and Hong Kong-Macau at the other, the South China Sea is one of the most heavily shipped seas in the world. The South China Sea is one of the most important economic and environmental regions in the world. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the South China Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihoods.
China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby, a top US military commander.
In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes.
China moved to start creating the artificial islands in the South China Sea in 2014, building them on top of rocks or reefs which were close to the water’s surface at high tide. Dredging ships were used to scoop up the sea floor to build up the islands on top of the rocks. China has fully militarized at least three islands with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems.
Mr. President, China has claimed “historic rights” in areas that are beyond 200 M from its mainland coasts, or any land feature over which it claims sovereignty, and within 200 M of the coasts of the Philippines’ main islands, and exploited the resources in these areas while preventing the Philippines from doing so.
Thousands of ships pass through the South China Sea every day,
and more than half the world’s tonnage of shipping passes through
the great gateways to the sea, the straits of Malacca, Lombok, and
Sunda. A quarter of the world’s oil (15 million barrels) slips daily
into the South China Sea through the narrow neck of the Strait
of Malacca alone.
But the nations surrounding the South China Sea have realized
that there is much more to this sea than just a conduit. Vast
amounts of oil and gas lie as yet untapped under the sea, especially
around the hundreds of small, mostly uninhabited, islets known
as the Spratlys. China and Taiwan both claim much of the ocean
as their own, which of course, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia,
Indonesia, and Thailand strongly dispute. There have only been
a few minor armed conflicts so far but there are frequent bristling
encounters between naval vessels of the competing nations. The
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has negotiated
rules for developing the ocean’s resources jointly, and China, too,
has agreed to plans to share the benefits, without renouncing its
claims to sovereignty.
As these vigorous international disputes go on, protection of the
South China Sea’s rich wildlife has not always been high on the
list of priorities. Many people who live around the shores are poor,
and the seemingly abundant marine life living among the sea’s
wealth of coral reefs – from sea turtles for food to tropical fish for
the aquarium trade – are just too tempting. It remains to be seen
whether the competing nations can agree on a workable plan for
protecting the wildlife while allowing people to make a living
before it is too late.
The Sea of Islands
The South China Sea is one of the most biologically
diverse marine ecosystems in the world. There are coral
reefs in abundance, vast seagrass meadows, richly sedimented
shallows, and mangrove swamps of wonderful variety. Indeed,
nearly a third of the world’s coral reefs are found in the region.
The wonderful reefs of this sea are also among the most
diverse on the planet. There are more than 2,000 different
species of fish on the coral reefs around the Philippines
alone. Green and hawksbill turtles, sharks of numerous
kinds, and myriad seabirds make this an astonishingly
rich place for marine life.
But the sea is also caught in the middle of some of the world’s
fastest developing regions. The population of the South China
Sea countries is growing rapidly, at 5 to 10 percent a year.
Maybe half a billion people live not far from the ocean’s shore,
and that number is set to rise dramatically over the next few
years, with cities like Guangzhou set to become the world’s
biggest urban centre. As these countries develop, their energy
consumption is rising even faster than their population. This is
bound to place increasing pressure not only on the South China
Sea’s already busy sea lanes, but on the gas and oil resources
lying, as yet, barely developed beneath its bed.
The gateway to the South China Sea through the Strait of
Malacca carries more oil than any seaway in the world but
the Strait of Hormuz. More than 15 million barrels of oil are
shipped through the Strait of Malacca every day, and in a year,
nearly 20,000 oil tankers glide over and past its abundant
seagrass beds and coral reefs, its mangrove swamps, and
Even more general cargo vessels make the transit. Oil spills
are inevitable, not just from collisions and groundings but also
from deliberate dumping. As oil exploration gets under way, too,
oil spills are becoming more and more of a hazard, and it is not
always easy to pinpoint the blame when spills do happen. Early
in 2007, 800 km (497 miles) of Vietnam’s coast were blackened
by huge quantities of oil coming ashore from a mystery source,
devastating tourist beaches, lobster farms, and nature reserves
alike. Huge efforts failed to identify the source.
The most current and immediate threat to the South China Sea’s
marine life, though, is overfishing and over-exploitation of its
natural resources. Around the edges, huge swathes of mangrove
swamps have been cleared to make way for the world’s largest
shrimp farms (see pages 108–109) and maybe three-quarters of
the mangrove swamps on the South China Sea’s coast have been
swept away in the last few decades. The remaining mangroves
and their tangle of roots and shrubs are still home to many
unique species, but their future is certainly threatened.
Fish is the main source of animal protein in the region, and as
the population grows, pressure on the sea’s fish increases. Much
of the fishing is still done in traditional ways, with small boats
and nets. But industrial fishing fleets are becoming more and
more common, and there is no doubt that the South China Sea
has begun to reach its limits of sustainability.
Coral reefs have been particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
Two-thirds of the corals have been severely degraded or
destroyed. Damaging illegal fishing methods, such as dynamite
and cyanide fishing, are partly to blame. With dynamite fishing,
bottles filled with explosives made from potassium nitrate
from fertilizer are dropped on the reef and exploded. The
blast ruptures the swim bladders of small fish so that they
float to the surface, where the fishermen collect them. The
reefs are reduced to rubble and countless other ‘useless’
animals are caught in the blast.
Cyanide fishing involves squirting cyanide into the water
to stun and capture valuable fish for the aquarium trade, or
fish such as the Napoleon wrasse or groupers for ‘live fish’
restaurants. The fish that are harvested often die very quickly,
while the corals and other creatures left behind are poisoned
and soon die.
At the beginning of the millennium, the seven nations
that border the sea – Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Indonesia,
Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines – agreed to a United
Nations Environment Programme to tackle the problems,
and the South China Sea has been designated one of the
International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 64 Large
Marine Ecosystems. The Chinese navy is becoming increasingly
assertive in preventing overfishing and illegal fishing, with
regular patrols policing the reefs around the Spratlys in
particular. But of course, because this is part of China’s
territorial claims to the sea and resources, these patrols
do not meet with approval from other nations. It remains
to be seen whether the South China Sea nations can act
together to preserve the sea’s marine life or if it gets caught
in the crossfire between them.