The South China Sea marine life slaughtered by reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands, was an issue raised by the United Nations tribunal while quashing Beijing’s claim to historic rights over the international waterway. The court’s censure on July 12, 2016, blamed China’s island building for causing “permanent and irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem”.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the U.N. body deemed Chinese authorities fully aware of the havoc they were causing on the South China Sea, while they did their land reclamation. Despite its obligation under Articles 192 and 194 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to preserve and protect the marine environment, Beijing essentially destroyed marine life within the fragile ecosystem, the court found.
Documented instances of Chinese fishermen engaged in destructive activity affecting 76 percent of the world’s coral species and 37 percent of reef-fish species in the South China Sea, have reportedly taken place with China’s full knowledge. Given that marine life was strangled over the last two decades under the watchful eye of the Chinese navy, suggests China’s culpability.
At the receiving end of the South China Sea debacle, the Philippines and other countries have suffered a considerable loss of resources, quantified by Forbes magazine to the tune of $177 billion in rent and damages against China. For Mischief Reef alone, a low-water elevation in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, China would have to ante up $12.4 billion in rent and damages. Occupied by China since 1995 during which a Chinese garrison and an airstrip were built, the reef system has been the killing fields for sea clams, turtles, fish and coral.
According to Forbes, its calculations are based on the following formulation. The United States paid the Philippines $1.97 million in 2015 for damages to .58 acres of coral reef when the U.S.S. Guardian ran aground. By this determinant, the Philippines could sue China for about $4.6 billion of environmental damages to the South China Sea’s Mischief Reef in 2016 dollars, plus the requirement to pay $7.8 billion in rent. If China tries to buck paying the combined $12.4 billion, the Philippines could seek redress in foreign civil courts to attach China’s offshore assets, enough to fund the required amount.
China occupied six features within Philippines’ claim in 1988: Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Cuarteron Reef. China has since dredged and built on all these sea-level formations, and slaughtered their marine occupants. Based on the Philippines’ 1988 demand for rent from the U.S., each of these six features should yield (in 2016 dollars) about $10.3 billion for 29 years of use — a total of $62 billion.
China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012, but has not yet built on this South China Sea feature. There are no known environmental damages to the shoal, but rent for five years would amount to some $1.8 billion (inclusive of 2012 and 2016).
Along with giant clams, sea turtles have been harvested from the South China Sea for their meat and decorative shells. Fish have been blasted or poisoned in expeditious ways. Coral clusters have been crushed by propellers to pry loose embedded clams worth thousands of dollars. Thus have the rich and diverse forms of marine life in the region been slaughtered.
A mere 400 miles away from the hotly contested Spratly Islands sits the Tubbataha Marine Park off the coast of Palawan in the Philippines. The park is an example of how an offshore reef can go from being over-exploited to successfully managed. A Unesco world heritage site that was set up in 1993, Tubbataha plays the same role as the Spratly chain in the South China Sea, stocking the entire Sulu Sea with fish.
According to The Guardian, John McManus of the University of Miami proposes a freeze on territorial claims in the South China Sea, along with joint resource management shared by the countries concerned. He believes it in Beijing’s interest to diminish tensions, while seeking to consolidate its position as a leader on the regional and global stage. Seeing how land-grabbing and slaughtered sea creatures could result in billions of dollars of lost trade for China, McManus suggests the following.
“Antarctica has been one of the most successful environmental treaties in history. China is now in a position to benefit tremendously by taking the lead on this.”
Meanwhile, outspoken Filipino Justice Antonio T. Carpio is urging China to join the Philippines in declaring the South China Sea a sanctuary for fish and part of the global commons. An advocate for peace in the region, he has repeatedly called for its use as a marine life reserve.
Noteworthy is the fact that the Tubbataha Marine Park has earned the reputation of being among the best dive destinations in the world. Whale sharks as well as tiger sharks and other apex predators frequent the park and promise a healthy, recovering ecosystem within the South China Sea.
While China tallies up the cost of doing business as usual in the South China Sea, and Filipino fishermen, as well as conservationists worldwide, grieve the loss of coral colonies, clams, turtles and fish slaughtered needlessly, the U.N. Tribunal decision stands. A wrong has been done, and redress in the form of payment for damages to such victim nations as the Philippines, is long overdue.