Why the South China Sea matters – Part 2 of the South China Sea dispute

A continuation from the Spratly Islands dispute post

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Nat Geo Reporter Rachel Bale reports her investigation into giant clam poachers on reefs in the South China Sea, like those on the Spratly Islands, in the video below:

In 2012 Philippine authorities found a Chinese fishing boat loaded with corals, live sharks, and giant clam shells at Scarborough Shoal, some 138 miles (220 kilometers) from the Philippine coast.

The government contacted Gomez with a question. Why in the world would the Chinese have so many giant clam shells? Gomez didn’t know, but he soon found out. A friend gave him a tip, advising him to visit the port town of Tanmen, on the island of Hainan.

When he got there, he was flabbergasted: “Rows and rows of shops selling nothing but giant clam carvings, giant clam shells, and corals,” he says. “There must have been, I would guess, a mile and a half of stores.”

It turned out that the giant clam handicraft market in China had exploded, and the South China Sea was its epicenter.

By the late 1990s Hainan fishermen had overfished their coastal waters. Their catches were getting smaller, and they were looking for ways to supplement their income, says Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The government helped them out with a special fuel subsidy to travel more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) south to the Spratly Islands, as well as subsidies for bigger and better boats.

Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/wildlife-giant-clam-poaching-south-china-sea-destruction/

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Spratly Islands Dispute – Death of the corals

The Spratly Islands are one of many islands found in the South China Sea that are part of the regional territorial dispute between nearby countries like China, Vietnam, Philippines.

All claim to have claim to various islands within the South China Sea, the largest claim being China’s ‘nine-dash line’:

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Other claims include:

Up to 5 countries are claiming parts or all of the Spratly Islands – China, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Why are the Islands important?

In terms of national security, these islands are important due to their location in the South China Sea, where many merchant ships pass through to deliver  goods, people, and energy products to Asian-Pacific countries. By controlling these islands, the country in question would be able to ensure the safe passage of their goods.

In terms of energy security, the Spratly Islands are considered indispensable to countries in the region due to the potential sources of natural gas and oil found under the islands’ seabed. Whichever country wins the dispute would have the right to explore and develop these resources for their own domestic consumption. This would help in diversifying a country’s energy portfolio while making them less vulnerable to foreign oil and gas markets. At this time, however, the amount of recoverable oil and gas that these islands contain have not been fully proven.

Beyond this, whichever country gets control of the islands will also have control over activities within the area – including fishing. Economically, the fishing industries of countries in the region can be very severely affected.

Source: http://energyinasiablog.com/2011/10/the-spratly-islands-dispute-defining-sea-lane-security/

Environmental impact so far?

China has been very active within the disputed islands and in recent years have constructed artificial islands within the disputed zones.

Satellite imagery from 30 March, 7 August 2014 and 30 January 2015 shows the extent of Chinese progress in building an island at Gaven Reefs in the Spratly Islands.
Source: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/28/asia/china-south-china-sea-disputes-explainer/

With the building of such islands on what used to be reefs, comes massive damage to reef systems, as discovered by experts:

Marine biologist John McManus said Chinese poachers had been using the propellers on their boats to destroy coral reefs at disputed islands Spratyls and Pag-asa, referred to as Thitu in China.

According to data, coral bleaching and reef scarring are evidence of systematic crushing through repeated scratching or scraping by Chinese poachers to harvest giant clams.

McManus added that aside from discovering the poaching method, the data also links the destruction of the corals to China’s construction of artificial islands.

“They said their scientists went there. They looked around and they say ‘Oh, this is all dead coral.’ It was! It’s the truth—it had been killed by the Chinese fishers,” he said.

Source: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/582462/scitech/science/chinese-poachers-destroyed-coral-reefs-in-spratly-pag-asa-islands-us-biologist

It doesn’t look like we are anywhere close to any solution to the dispute, those most agree that any solution should only come with negotiations and not military action. Until that happens, it is doubtful the reefs will be left unscathed.