China's Island Building Hurts Environment, U.S. Report Says

In Dangerous Waters: Fishermen in South China Sea
  • Sand and gravel killing South China Sea coral reefs, it says
  • Environmental damage may breach international law of the sea

China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea may have destroyed coral reefs, damaged fisheries in a region heavily dependent on seafood and breached international law on protecting the environment, according to a report to U.S. Congress.

“The scale and speed of China’s activities in the South China Sea, the biodiversity of the area, and the significance of the Spratly Islands to the ecology of the region make China’s actions of particular concern,” an April 12 report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said.

China reclaimed about 3,000 acres of land on seven features it occupies in the Spratly islands of the South China Sea between December 2013 and October 2015, the report said. Vietnam has reclaimed about 80 acres, Malaysia 70 acres, the Philippines 14 acres and Taiwan eight acres, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

QuickTake map shows overlapping territorial claims of Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. {NSN O2OSHZ1ANZG8}
QuickTake map shows overlapping territorial claims of Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. {NSN O2OSHZ1ANZG8}

The findings by Matthew Southerland, a policy analyst for security and foreign affairs at the Commission, comes as an international tribunal nears its ruling on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea, including that it violated obligations under the United National law of the Sea to protect the marine environment. Southerland’s report cites sources including marine scientists and the Philippine government.

Radar, Airfields

China claims more than four-fifths of the South China Sea and its actions have sparked tensions with other claimants as well as the U.S., which contends that the potential militarization of the islands may hinder navigation in waters that carry more than $5 trillion of seaborne trade a year. The reclaimed reefs host radar facilities, lighthouses and airfields that can land military aircraft.

An “unfair ruling” by the tribunal may threaten peace and stability in the waters and prompt China to take measures to defend its sovereignty, Wu Shicun, president and senior research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said at a briefing in Beijing Wednesday.

“It’s impossible for the tribunal to reach a fair and objective ruling,” Wu said. “If it is a very unfair ruling, or the U.S. uses the ruling to support the Philippines to take some action in the South Sea, then it may threaten peace and stability. I believe China has to take measures to protect its interests and its image as a major country.”

In Dangerous Waters: Fishermen in South China Sea

China’s dredgers have deposited sand and gravel on about 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) of reefs, destroying the coral beneath, according to the report. Dredgers also stir up plumes of sand and silt that damage coral tissue and block sunlight from organisms such as reef-building corals, which cannot survive without it, it said.

The sand and gravel would have either killed fish or expelled them from the reefs, the report said, citing John W. McManus, professor of marine biology and ecology in the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. The damage also could hurt the health of fisheries in coastal areas, it said.

‘Science Based’

Chinese officials previously have said the country needs to build facilities on reclaimed reefs to protect them. They’ve also said the construction of lighthouses was in part to assist in rescue operations and gather meteorological data.

The director-general of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in May the island building project had “gone through science-based evaluation and assessment, with equal importance given to construction and protection.”

China hasn’t published enough information about its assessment of the environmental impact of the program “to ensure the truth of that assertion, nor does it appear China has provided additional information to any international organization,” the Commission report said.

The Commission was created by the U.S. Congress in 2000 to investigate and submit an annual report on the national security implications of trade with China. Posting of the environmental report on its website doesn’t necessarily imply an endorsement, it said.

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