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Beijing has cast a peaceful light on its construction of airfields, ports and radar antennae on 800 hectares of new man-made islands in the South China Sea, claiming they are intended for humanitarian concerns like maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, and navigational security, and to aid environmental protection.
At least one counter-claimant to this maritime area sees it otherwise. The Philippines says that "China's massive reclamation activities are causing irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It has said China was damaging some 120 hectares of coral reef systems in the Spratly Islands, at an estimated economic loss valued at $100 million annually.
So what impact do these building projects actually have on the marine ecology of this contested sea, a vital food source for many millions of people in the countries around it? And if it does carry serious risks, what should the international community do about China's construction projects?
The current Chinese construction projects in the Spratly Islands are primarily military installations. In the past two years, Chinese dredges have formed some 800 hectares of new territory in the Spratlys, including port facilities, air strips, radar antennae, and artillery installations.
Other countries are also building or expanding their facilities in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam maintains the most features in the Spratly Islands: six islands, 16 reefs, and six banks. Taiwan controls the largest land feature in the Spratly Islands, Itu Aba, and is expanding its port there to accommodate frigates and coast guard cutters. It is also making improvements to its 1200-metre runway.
But the total size of all these construction activities in the Spratly Islands activities is quite small, under 10 square kilometres.
By contrast, the Philippines has 35,000 square kilometres or 3.5 million hectares of coral reefs within its undisputed territorial waters. About 70 per cent of them are degraded due to coral mining, dynamite, cyanide and other destructive fishing practices, as well as sedimentation and pollution from land based sources. This is vastly larger than the buried 120 hectares of reef attributed to Chinese building projects in the Spratly Islands. In the short term, the environmental impact of all these building projects in the Spratlys is highly disruptive to local ecosystems due to sand dredging, coral mining, and cement pouring.
The long-term impact is not yet clear. However, the costs could be catastrophic. Coral reefs are the foundation of the maritime food chain. They provide the habitat and spawning grounds for numerous fish species, including many of the world's most valuable and productive stocks of tuna and shrimp.
These reclamation projects are part of China's strategic and symbolic campaign to strengthen its claims to the region. They are widely seen as a potential threat to freedom of navigation, and as a potential military threat to displace multilateral rule of law for dispute settlement.
It is also part of China's response to the most frequent source of low-level conflict in the South China Sea: fishing vessels competing for dwindling fish stocks. Poaching and fishing in contested waters have become widespread in the region. This may lead to the worst case of irreversible and widespread damage, a collapse of regional fisheries similar to the tragedy of the commons in the North Atlantic cod fisheries in the 1990s.
What can be done to mitigate environmental impact of construction activities? The first thing to do is to closely monitor China's building projects. This is now being done through several high-resolution satellite surveillance efforts.
A second priority is to re-engage China in multilateral efforts for regional environment protection and resource management. In November 2011, China announced that it would establish a three billion yuan ($476 million) fund for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation on scientific research, environmental protection, freedom of navigation, search and rescue, and combating transnational crimes at sea.
More recently, at the 2015 Boao Forum for Asia, Beijing officially launched the Year of ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation, and announced that China and ASEAN nations would carry out cooperation in the areas of marine economy, maritime connectivity, marine science research and environmental protection, safety and security, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges on the sea. Regional diplomats and political leaders should work vigorously to turn these pledges into targets and timetables.
A third option worth doing is to emulate successful examples of equitable and sustainable resource management even in disputed areas such as the Tonkin Gulf Joint Resource Management Zone between China and Vietnam. This program took effect in 2004, and has created a cooperative management regime for their shared fishery resources.
The major approach recommended here is for Spratly Island stake-holders to begin or expand functional cooperation for joint resource management for marine safety, search and rescue operations, scientific research, disaster relief, protection of the marine environment, and other politically feasible areas, even while their sovereignty disputes remain unsettled.
For example, it would be useful to establish an "incidents at sea" agreement to provide a hotline or emergency response system to report confrontations involving vessel seizures and crew detentions.
Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration has been monitoring environmental quality around Itu Aba Island and has proposed expanding this into a multilateral effort covering the Spratly Islands. Taiwan and Vietnam have both proposed setting aside ecologically valuable areas for protected marine reserves.
More sustained, collective diplomatic and political action will be necessary to transform mutually exacerbating confrontations into mutually beneficial ones.
David Rosenberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont, and editor of southchinasea.org.