In recent years the South China Sea has become a fiercely contested region. China's rise as a regional and global superpower has emboldened an aggressive strategy to claim a larger share of the sea than would otherwise be allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While UNCLOS permits countries to exercise exclusive economic jurisdiction over a 200 mile extension from shore, China has claimed an ambiguously explained "9-dash line" that seemingly cuts into the maritime jurisdictions of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines (see map). A 2002 agreeement between Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for self-restraint in the area, but recently all countries have participated in an island development arms race to justify maritime and territorial claims. China, in particular, has been the most aggressive:
In 2011 Chinese patrol boats harassed Vietnamese and Philippine oil-exploration vessels near the Spratlys. In 2012 China occupied Scarborough Shoal after a stand-off with the Philippines, which also has a claim. Last year a Chinese state-owned company sent an offshore oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam, leading to violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnamese cities. The rig withdrew months later. China has responded angrily to a case challenging the basis of its claims in the South China Sea which was filed in 2013 by the Philippines at a UN-backed arbitration panel. It has refused to co-operate with the hearings.
The refusal to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the auspices of UNCLOS is problematic for several reasons. First, because it erodes the legitimacy and persuasiveness of a treaty if a major nation does not participate. Second, because without a meaningful legal response the international community has less information with which to understand China's concerns and facilitate dispute resolution. And finally, because uncertainty over the impending decision of the court is escalating island development ahead of the decision, destroying coral reef habitats.
The South China Sea has now become a conflict of global concern. Relations between China and its neighbors (including Japan) have deteriorated; much of the island development appears to be militarized; and the integrity of UNCLOS is being undermined. The United States is deeply involved, with an interest in countering China's rising maritime influence by pivoting toward warmer relations with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines (although the US position that China's 9-dash line is invalid is somewhat undermined by the fact that the US is not a ratified party to UNCLOS).
Less attention has been paid to the South China Sea environment itself. In order to stake territorial claims (and the 200 mile exclusive economic zones that may go with them), countries are "reclaiming" shallow coral reef areas by dredging the seafloor in order to build artificial islands. Shipping channels are cut and infrastructure is built over the reef. One recently discovered artificial island has grown to accommodate an 82,000 square yard facility. The land reclamation race only adds to the already fragile condition most reefs in the area find themselves in. And given that legal jurisdiction is in dispute in the region, it probably goes without saying that fish stocks are plummeting due to overfishing. Indonesia has resorted to sinking illegal fishing vessels, a move that has been criticized for antagonizing neighbors.
But while many see the environment as a casualty of the South China Sea dispute, it also represents an opportunity for reconciliation. In early April the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement outlining the public services the islands can provide, including:
to better meet China’s international responsibilities and obligations in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, weather observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production services, and other areas.
China's assurances that public services will be provided may be a cynical ploy, and the Philippines certainly aren't buying it. Regardless, many of the countries in the region rely on fish stocks and coral reefs to provide nutrition, tourism, and commercial profits, and each country in the region stands to benefit from a healthy marine environment in which biodiversity is protected and natural resources are sustainably exploited. Because healthy ecosystems are typically mutually beneficial, adopting environmental agreements can be a mechanism toward thawing relations. The recent climate change deal between the United States and China, for example, represented a significant breakthrough in US-China relations, and signaled to the international community that multilateral cooperation is possible.
Countries in the South China Sea, ASEAN, and the United States have a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. A framework for coral reef protection and fisheries management can provide the basis for more robust negotiating over contentious issues like military installations and oil and gas rights. If the Court of Arbitration's decision is (as some expect) a defeat for China, rancor may be at an all-time high and it's not clear how countries will react. Grounding discussions on the South China Sea environment would be a good place to start.