BEIJING, China — Sand, cement, and Chinese military facilities now sit on top of some of the South China Sea’s once-thriving reefs; China has built over half a dozen new artificial islands in a bid to bolster its territorial claims in the hotly disputed region. Such reclamation devastates the local marine habitat. But according to China, these activities do not cause significant ecological damage. Beijing increasingly insists that the island-sized piles of sand and concrete now burying the highly biodiverse coral reefs are, in fact, environmentally friendly.
“It’s a green project,” claimed Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deputy Director-General Wang Xining in a May 10 meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. All land reclamation and construction activity in the region “is carefully designed, carefully built, [to] try to minimize ecological effect,” Wang told a group of journalists visiting Beijing on a May reporting trip organized through the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Wang’s comments reflect an official position that has been percolating for some time within the Chinese establishment. In March 2015, the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences convened the “South China Sea Artificial Island Ecological Security and Sustainable Development Seminar.” At the event, an emphasis on “national maritime power” accompanied discussion of “blue eco-building” on the artificial islands, suggesting that geopolitics might be prevailing over scientific considerations. In June 2015, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), the agency tasked with monitoring the country’s maritime environmental policies, picked up on this line of reasoning. In a statement titled “Spratly Reef Expansion Project Will Not Cause Damage to the Marine Environment,” posted to its website on June 18, 2015, SOA gave its stamp of approval to the island building, calling it a “green project.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently begun to emphasize that phrase. “China’s activities on the Nansha Islands strictly follow the principle of conducting green project[s] and building ecological islands and reefs,” remarked Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei during a May 6 press briefing, using the Chinese term for the Spratly Islands. “The impact on the ecological system of coral reefs is limited.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, a busy waterway through which over $5 trillion in trade passes every year. Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines hold competing claims over the resource-rich sea. Over the past three years, Chinese dredgers have worked quickly to pull sediment from the ocean floor surrounding reef and atolls in the Spratly Islands, located more than 500 miles south of the Chinese coast. While other claimants in the South China Sea have also built up features on islands or reefs in the South China Sea, China’s reclamation activities far outpace those of other countries. U.S. officials estimate that China has created more than 3,200 acres in the Spratlys alone. China has also installed military hardware on the artificial islands, including airstrips, radar, port facilities, multi-story buildings, surface-to-air missiles, and an anti-ship cruise missile.
But China’s claims of environmental friendliness contradict the findings of leading marine biologists, who say the island building is devastating South China Sea’s coral ecosystems, which are among the most productive in the world. The reefs include hundreds of species of coral and a dizzying variety of fish that form the backbone of local fishing communities along the coasts of neighboring countries.
Looking at satellite photos of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, told the Guardian in September 2015 that strands of white silt streaming visibly into the lagoon were evidence of the mucus emitted by millions of dying corals smothered by sediment. The mass reclamation has imperiled more than coral. “The sand and silt stirred up by the dredgers covers most of the lagoon and is settling out on most of the remaining reef,” McManus said. “The sand will kill nearly any bottom-dwelling organisms on which it settles in large quantities, and clog the gills of most fish. I don’t expect to find any fish surviving within that lagoon except in the very southern areas.”
Even if all land reclamation ceased immediately and recovery efforts begun, McManus said, it would be too late for much of the life originally found around Mischief Reef. “A substantial amount of this damage is irrecoverable and irreplaceable.”
The Spratlys alone are home to 571 coral species and a huge variety of fish. But the “dredging and building on coral reefs in the South China Sea,” Alan Freidlander, a biologist at the University of Hawaii, told journalists in May 2015, “is causing irreparable damage to one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth.” The resulting depletion of fishing stock could cost the Philippine economy and its fishing industry $110 million annually, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Philippines, which also maintains claims in the Spratlys.
It’s not just the coral reefs, and the fish that breed and feed there, that could suffer. Frank Muller-Karger, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida, told the New York Times in 2015 that the material dredged from the sea floor to form the islands “can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil, and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built.”
Not everyone in China holds the party line. In response to an article posted on May 6 on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo about Hong’s “green project” comment, some Chinese web users expressed doubt, even disdain. “China still deigns to say that it cares about ecology and the environment? I’m kind of disgusted,” wrote one in a popular comment. Another user complained, “You beat your kid into a pulp, then a neighbor comes to stop you; then you say, ‘We don’t allow outsiders to interfere in our private affairs.'”
An impending ruling from a U.N. tribunal may be one cause for the rapid buildup, as China seeks to establish de facto control over the South China Sea in case a court ruling undermines its activities there. In January 2013, the Philippines brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a U.N.-appointed tribunal, challenging the legal basis for some of China’s claims in the region. China has consistently maintained that it will not participate in or accept the court arbitration. In a May 6 press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei repeated that stance, stating, “Whatever decision the arbitrary tribunal makes on the South China Sea case, it is illegal and null and China will not accept nor recognize it.”
Seeking to further defend its construction of artificial islands and military facilities in the region, Beijing has refused to acknowledge the environmental havoc its activities have wrought. Such a defense may itself serve as an attempt to boost claims to sovereignty, by portraying China as a responsible steward of what it views as its own backyard. In May 2015, Zhang Haiwen, director general of the Department of International Cooperation at SOA, said that China’s goal in the region was to “achieve the sustainable development of the marine economy.” Zhang also insisted that the SOA “closely reviewed” all reclamation activities in the South China Sea, but refused to discuss the evident damage to the reefs. Hong even described land reclamation as similar to natural weather phenomena. “China takes the approach of ‘natural simulation’ which simulates the natural process of sea storms blowing away and moving biological scraps which gradually evolve into oasis on the sea,” he said.
Wang denied the claim that dredging had caused significant or irreparable damage to ecosystems in the sea. “[The builders] have carefully calculated how much damage — there won’t be zero damage of course — how much damage it will cause and how to control it, minimize it,” he said. “They have to finish their job.”
“This is a sensitive building project. Everybody is very concerned,” added Wang. “But this sea is where our people will live on. We have to go there for fishing.”
That echoed Hong’s more forceful statement on May 6. “As owners of the Nansha Islands,” said Hong, “China cares about protecting the ecological environment of relevant islands, reefs and waters more than any other country, organization or people in the world.”
Photo Credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe
Correction, May 27, 2016: The Philippines brought its claims to the U.N.-appointed tribunal in January 2013. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the Philippines had taken this action in March 2014.