Under threat: A swirling school of jack fish in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. The island chain is part of 600 islands, reefs and shoals environmentalists consider a biodiversity "hotspot." Photo: Reuters/David Loh

Despite seemingly positive negotiations with Vietnam early this year, China has been challenging its Southeast Asian neighbor through new moves in the South China Sea. These include the construction of Chinese military facilities on man-made islands in contested waters.

While the security implications of the military build-up have been widely noted, less examined has been the damage caused to the marine environment, including vital coral reefs and other features.

The Spratly Islands in particular – claimed by both China and Vietnam – are recognized as a “biodiversity hotspot”, whose coral reefs protect young fish and other maritime species from predators and help to replenish fish stocks that are a crucial source of food for millions of people.

Destructive: Chinese dredging vessels at Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo taken May 2016. Photo: US Navy Handout via Reuters

Ecologists have estimated there are as many as 600 coral reef species and 3,000 fish species in the island chain. Because of the territorial disputes, among other factors, scientific literature on the underwater ecoregion is limited.

Studies done by John McManus, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, show that Chinese island-building in the disputed Spratlys has resulted in the destruction of nearly 3,000 acres of coral reefs.

His research in 2016, in collaboration with others, estimates that the dredging required to create artificial islands on South China Sea atolls risks causing “irreversible damages” to “unique coral reef ecosystems.”

Endangered: A coral reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Hemis-Fr via AFP Forum

The academic study said the atolls serve as “safe harbor” for some of the least viable populations of highly threatened species and that the dredging threatens to push many aquatic species to “extinction.”

Other claimant nations have also destroyed coral reefs in the South China Sea. But scientists and other researchers say that the environmental destruction caused by Chinese dredging to create artificial islands is much more widespread than other claimants’ actions.

Big build-up: Chinese land reclamation in the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Ritchie B. Tongo

A report released in May last year on the South China Sea by the Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which is associated with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, concluded, among other things, that Vietnam’s island-building in the Spratly Islands was on a much smaller scale than that undertaken by China.

Its researchers estimated that the “new land” created by Vietnam came to 120 acres, a small fraction of that created by China.

The AMTI examination also said that Vietnam’s work in the Spratlys on the 10 islets and reefs that it occupies was also “far less environmentally destructive, as it has not involved large-scale dredging of the reefs on which Hanoi’s outposts sit.”

“Nevertheless,” it said, “Vietnam has ignored calls, including by US officials, to halt its island building in order to support a consensus against the practice.”

Lesser presence: A Vietnamese claimed island in the Spratly islands. Photo: Reuters

China’s recent negotiations with Vietnam have offered some hope for better maritime management. During a visit to Beijing in early January, Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary, signed 15 agreements dealing among other things with economic cooperation, defense relations and tourism.

Environmental cooperation was also on the agenda, but details of the discussions were not made publicly available. Anti-Chinese feelings are widespread in Vietnam, and tensions over disputed fishing grounds in the South China Sea have been a constant thorn in bilateral relations.

South China Sea disputed islands

Murray Hiebert, a Vietnam expert and deputy director of the Southeast Asia program for CSIS, says that “everyone knows that the Vietnamese have to find a way to live next to China, but Vietnamese nationalism makes it necessary for them not to let China roll over them.”

Threatening moves 

China has tried every year since 1999 to impose a fishing ban north of the Spratly Islands, enforced maritime militia vessels back by their coast guard and apparently to preserve fish stocks and prevent illegal fishing. But Vietnam regards these bans as attempts to intrude on its sovereignty.

Bill Hayton, the author of a book on the struggle for power in the South China Sea, said “while the ban itself might make sound conservation sense, its annual unilateral imposition has prevented other countries from joining it because they fear that acquiescence could be interpreted as recognition of Chinese sovereignty.”

This has in the past contributed to clashes between Chinese vessels and Vietnamese fishing boats, most often around the Paracel Islands.

A Vietnam Marine Guard ship (R) near a Chinese Coast Guard (L) in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off the shore of Vietnam on May 14, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Minh

In February, China’s agriculture ministry, as expected, announced a fishing ban, including several areas claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam that would last from May 1 to August 16. The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry strongly objected to the ban, which it described as “unilateral.”

In the meantime, recent developments on China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys have threatened Sino-Vietnamese cooperation even more.The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative issued a report on March 27 saying that China has now reached a new stage in the construction of military facilities on several of its artificial islands.

China is concluding major military construction in the Spratly Islands on what are known to some experts as the “Big 3”—Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs, facilities which AMTI has tracked through satellite photography for nearly two years. The construction includes runways, hangars, and radar.

Chinese construction on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/Handout via Reuters

Together with an air base in the Paracels, this will allow China’s combat aircraft to operate over “nearly the entire South China Sea,” according to the AMTI report.

This would appear to leave little room for cooperation between China and Vietnam on preserving the environment on and around the Spratlys—except on China’s terms.

China occupies seven atolls in the Spratlys. Other claimants to islets, reefs or cays in the group include the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China claims the Spratly Islands outright by historic right.

Caught in the middle: A sea turtle heads from a sanctuary towards the South China Sea. Photo: AFP /Jimin Lai

But Vietnam has the largest presence, with troops occupying more than 20 reefs or islets. Clashes appear possible, whereas an all-out war seems unlikely.

But as marine ecologist McManus says, “once substantial armed conflicts have begun, it will be very difficult to achieve the level of international cooperation…needed to halt the decline in these valuable marine resources.”

Dan Southerland is the former executive editor of Radio Free Asia

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