West PH Sea turning into a wasteland – analyst

JC Gotinga
West PH Sea turning into a wasteland – analyst
Reclaiming coral reefs, harvesting giant clams, and overfishing – mostly by China – have reduced the contested sea into a 'boneyard,' says Asia maritime expert Gregory Poling

MANILA, Philippines – As countries claiming parts or all of the South China Sea take long drafting rules on the body of water, Chinese activities harmful to the marine environment threaten to leave nothing for the other claimants but a “wasteland,” an analyst said on Friday, May 15.

Citing overfishing and the harvesting of giant clams on the seabed particularly by Chinese poachers, US-based Asia maritime analyst Gregory Poling said the “vast majority” of shallow reef surface in the South China Sea is “severely damaged,” with some parts “dead permanently.”

The South China Sea is the body of water connecting the Asian continent, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine islands, and Taiwan. The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and outlying territories within what’s internationally known as the South China Sea.

Although fishing boats from countries surrounding this sea routinely exploit its resources, Chinese vessels have had the most dominant presence in recent years, often edging out its neighbors including the Philippines.

China has unilaterally enforced fishing blockades on other claimants while its own poachers have been documented fishing and scraping coral reefs virtually unrestrained.

These, besides China’s reclamation of 7 reefs in the West Philippine Sea, which it has turned into artificial islands with military bases.

“The South China Sea is turning into a wasteland. It is a boneyard,” Poling said in a virtual forum hosted by the US Embassy in Manila on Friday.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), consisting of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, are hard-pressed to get China to scale down its aggressive occupation of the sea. Two decades of negotiating a code of conduct on the water are said to be coming to a head, but many analysts including Poling expect the resulting set of rules will hardly deter China’s actions.

“If there is no cooperation to halt the overfishing, prevent the purposeful destruction of the marine environment…and give the South China Sea marine environment time to repair itself, there will not be any fish left by the time a code of conduct is finished,” Poling warned.

In April, Senator Risa Hontiveros said China owes the Philippines over P200 billion in damages for environmental destruction in the West Philippine Sea. The amount could be used to cover the Philippines’ expenses in addressing the coronavirus pandemic, she added.

A year before, in April 2019, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest with the Chinese government over the massive harvesting of giant clams in Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal.

Chinese coast guards have virtually kept Filipino fishermen out of Panatag Shoal’s lagoon, cutting their chances of a good catch and preventing them from accessing its natural harbor in bad weather.

The head of a fisherfolk organization in Zambales, the province nearest Panatag Shoal, told Rappler in September 2019 that the volume of their catch declined by 80% since 2012, when Chinese vessels first occupied and blockaded the lagoon.

In 2018, the ASEAN and China agreed on a “decade of maritime protection” but so far there have been no negotiations to enforce it.

A United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal called out China’s environment-destructive activities in its July 2016 ruling that affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. The ruling invalidated China’s so-called 9-dash line that eats up nearly the entire sea.

Conflicting interests among the ASEAN states and China tend to delay resolutions of issues particularly on the South China Sea. However, protecting its marine environment is a common interest, and can be a starting point for consensus, Poling said.

“Far more important than talks for a code of conduct, [the ASEAN should] push for something more real, and would actually preserve the livelihoods of those most impacted,” he added. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.