Tag Archives: South China Sea

Ecological Hooliganism: smashing the coral triangle

Giant clams are one of Buddhism’s “seven treasures”, along with gold and lapis lazuli. China’s new rich prize their shells as showy ornaments. Each can fetch as much as $3,000, so each haul was worth a fortune to the fishermen of Tanmen, a little fishing port on the island province of Hainan in Southern China.  But Chinese government banned the clam fishing…
The ban is surely welcome. [S]ome of the most biodiverse coral reefs on Earth have been destroyed in the South China Sea thanks to giant-clam poachers. In the shallow waters of the reefs, crews use the propellers of small boats launched from each mother-ship to smash the surrounding coral and thus free the clams anchored fast to the reef. Though the practice has received little attention, it is ecological hooliganism, and most of it has been perpetrated by boats from Tanmen.

The fishermen have not been the reefs’ only adversaries. China’s huge and (to its neighbours) controversial programme since late 2013 of building artificial islands around disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea has paved over another 22 square miles of coral. When the two activities are taken together, Mr McManus says, about 10% of the reefs in the vast Spratly archipelago to the south of Hainan, and 8% of those in the Paracel islands, between Hainan and Vietnam, have been destroyed. Given that Asia’s Coral Triangle, of which the South China Sea forms the apex, is a single, interconnected ecosystem, the repercussions of these activities, environmentalists say, will be huge…

But still..A few streets back from the waterfront in Tanmen, elegant boutiques sell jewellery and curios fashioned from the giant clams—and clam shells are still stacked outside. And the provincial money that is so clearly being lavished on Tanmen sits oddly with the illegality of its townsfolk’s way of life. .. [I] n 2013 President Xi Jinping himself showed up in Tanmen. Boarding one of the trawlers he declared to the crew, according to state media, “You guys do a great job!” The media did not report that a year earlier the trawler in question had been caught in the territorial waters of Palau, and in the confrontation with local police that followed one of the crew members had been shot dead. In Chinese propaganda, Tanmen’s fishermen are patriots and model workers.

Over the years Tanmen’s fishermen have become part of China’s power projection in the South China Sea, an unofficial but vital adjunct to the Chinese navy and coastguard. The biggest trawlers are organised into a maritime militia ready to fight a “people’s war” at sea. Though generally unarmed, they undergo training and take orders from the navy.

They are facts on the water, and have been involved in China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea. In 2012 boats from Tanmen were part of a navy-led operation to wrest control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, chasing Philippine fishing vessels away. In 2014 they escorted a Chinese oil rig that was being towed provocatively into Vietnamese waters. On land, Vietnamese expressed their rage by ransacking factories they thought were Chinese-owned. At sea, boats from Tanmen rammed and sank one of the rickety Vietnamese vessels coming out to protest.

Mysteriously, though, the giant trawlers of the Tanmen militia are now rafted up, their crews sent home. Perhaps China is keen to lower tensions in the region….A policy introduced in January aims to cut the catch from China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, by a sixth, in the name of sustainability. That will hit Tanmen’s fishermen hard, making them less willing to defend China’s claims. Francis Drake would have understood: pirates are patriotic, but usually only when it pays.

Excerpts from Clamshell Phoneys, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

Divide and Conquer: China and the South China Sea

In 2002 China and the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations agreed to a “declaration” on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This is a promise to formalise a code minimising the risk that disputes between fishermen or other users of the sea might escalate into conflict. The code has not emerged. But optimists point to the restraint parties have shown since 2002 in not occupying uninhabited islands or specks of rock (though they have been energetically fortifying the places where they already had a presence). Similarly, some were cheered when China’s most recent statement of its claim did not include the contentious map, and could even be construed as accepting (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) UNCLOS principles.

..But in late May 2011 a Vietnamese ship exploring for oil and gas in the Sea had its surveying cables cut by Chinese patrol boats..Around the time when the Vietnamese survey ship had its lines cut, the Philippines reported that Chinese vessels had been spotted unloading building material on an uninhabited reef, known as the Amy Douglas Bank, in waters it claims, apparently to build an oil rig. If so, this would undermine the declaration’s one big achievement. “It could be the final nail in its coffin,” says Ian Storey of the Institute for South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, author of a new book on China’s rise and South-East Asian security.

Even if China does not build on the reef, the perception has taken hold that it is intent on picking off the South-East Asian claimants one by one, starting with the Philippines, one of the weakest.

Excerpts, Banyan: Not littorally Shangri-La, Economist, June 11, 2011, at 50

More than Rocks, South China Sea and its Claimants


The Philippines is incensed about an incident on March 2nd when, it says, two Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a ship conducting a survey at Reed Bank, off its island of Palawan. On March 4th Vietnam also protested to China, about military exercises in waters it claims. Most probably these tiffs will blow over, as usual, long before anybody gets hurt. Yet the risks are mounting that a random incident in a bewildering array of quarrels may escalate into conflict, if only because no prospect exists of a settlement.

That is partly because the sea is entangled in so many separate disputes. China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam war. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim. The same three parties also contest the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.

Some of these arguments might in theory be solvable under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission, showing where they thought their claims lay, based on their continental shelves. China, however, objected to that submission and tabled its own map, with nine dotted lines outlining its claim. Joined up, these lines give China almost the whole sea. There seems no basis for this in UNCLOS. But China points to a map in use since the Republic of China published it during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and says that, until quite recently, nobody minded. Indonesia, in turn, objected to China’s objection, since its claim encroached on Indonesian waters, too.

According to American officials, China last year began talking of its claims in the South China Sea as a “core” national interest, which would put it on a par with Tibet and Taiwan. In return, America has proclaimed its own “national interest”, citing the importance of the freedom of navigation and of overflight. Neither is under immediate threat. China and America, however, have long disagreed about whether America’s armed forces have the right to conduct manoeuvres within other countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and to spy on them even from inside their (12-mile) territorial waters. Two years ago America complained when Chinese vessels harassed a surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, in the South China Sea south of the Chinese island-province of Hainan. America’s vociferous involvement, notably at a regional security forum in Hanoi last July, was welcomed at the time by most of the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China, though, fumed at America’s unrealistic offer of “mediation”.

Yet another dispute divides China and ASEAN. These two parties reached a common “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” (DoC) in 2002 in an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict. But efforts to turn this into a formal and binding code have gone nowhere. China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues. It prefers to pick off rival claimants one by one. ASEAN argues that its own charter obliges members to consult, as they do before each working group on the code of conduct, the next one of which is due soon. Another difficulty for the DoC is that Taiwan is not a party. Though Taiwan occupies only one Spratly islet, it is the biggest, now boasting a long runway.  Optimists argue that the DoC has at least helped keep tensions down. Indeed, since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratlys, there have been no serious armed flare-ups. Tension rose in 1995, when China was found to have built on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines. Fishermen are sometimes locked up for encroaching on another country’s claim. But the risk of escalation into conflict has seemed limited.

It is even possible to claim that the “self-restraint” the DoC demands is being observed. Since 2002 no uninhabited islands or rocks have been occupied. But maybe none of those left is big enough, and on those that were already occupied, building has continued. Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think-tank in Manila, has an impressive collection of photographs of South China Sea structures. On Mischief Reef, for example, China has built a “fisherman’s shelter” in the form of a three-storey concrete fortress, surrounded by five octagonal structures, also in concrete.

Such digging-in, accompanied by frenetic military modernisation by most of the claimants, is one reason to worry that the stakes in the South China Sea are becoming bigger. Another is China’s proclivity for muscle-flexing. South-East Asia has seen how China is ready to bully Japan over contested waters in the sea between them. Just this week Japan lodged a formal protest after a Chinese helicopter flew close to one of its ships. That the South China Sea has become a focus of American determination to remain an Asian power adds yet another source of tension.

Moreover, the sea offers fishing bounty and is a vital shipping route for a big chunk of world trade. It has also, particularly around the Spratlys, long been believed to be rich in hydrocarbons. As time goes by, that belief grows. For example, the Sampaguita gasfield near Reed Bank is estimated to hold at least 3.4 trillion cubic feet (85 billion cubic metres) and perhaps as much as 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Excerpts, Banyan: Carps among the Spratlys, Economist, Mar. 12, 2011, at 51

New Empires of the Oceans


Imperialism and oceanography often go hand in hand. The British Admiralty’s surveys of the world’s coastlines and shallow seas during the 18th and 19th centuries brought a wealth of scientific knowledge. They also did no harm to the ability of British merchantmen to navigate the world—and of British warships to dominate it.

Viewed from that perspective, China’s southern neighbours might be slightly nervous about a meeting held in Shanghai on January 26th and 27th, which gathered the country’s oceanographers (including several who work abroad) to discuss a project called South China Sea-Deep. As its name suggests, this project is intended to explore the South China Sea, a patch of water with an area of 3.5m square kilometres and a maximum depth of 5.5km that China’s government regards (despite competing claims from every other country with littoral waters there) in much the same way that ancient Romans regarded the Mediterranean: mare nostrum.

The scientists in question disclaim any intent to push back frontiers other than those of human understanding. They also say the project’s focus is on basic scientific matters rather than a search for things like oil and mineral resources. No doubt that is true—just as it is true that many who sailed under the Admiralty’s aegis were motivated by a thirst for pure knowledge. But knowledge is power, and if Chinese scientists are the first to explore the depths of the South China Sea, then Chinese businessmen will be better placed than others to exploit any commercially valuable finding that they make, and the Chinese navy will be better placed to defend them.

South China Sea-Deep is led by Wang Pinxian, of Tongji University in Shanghai, a doyen of the field. To assist him, he will be able to call on the services of Jiaolong, China’s latest deep-submersible vehicle which is designed to dive to a depth of 7km. Last July Jiaolong managed 3.8km. The craft’s handlers aim to push that to 5km this summer and to the full amount next year…. The budget for South China Sea-Deep is 150m yuan ($22m), to be paid for over the next eight years by the National Natural Science Foundation, a government agency based in Beijing. Nor is this China’s only oceanographic enterprise. A deep-sea technology centre in Qingdao will cost 400m yuan and a network of sea floor observatories similar to Canada’s Neptune programme and America’s Ocean Observatories Initiative will clock up another 1.4 billion yuan. Money well spent, no doubt, in the interests of pure research. Still, it cannot hurt, as Zhang Gongcheng, of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, observed in his talk at the meeting, that the reserve of natural gas in the South China Sea is estimated at 200 trillion cubic metres. Pure research is all very well. But buttering a few parsnips at the same time can do no harm.

Excerpt, Oceanography in China: Who rules the waves?, Economist, Feb. 12, 2011, at 90