Biodiversity: An Overlooked, But Critical Aspect in the South China Sea Disputes

Rising tensions in the South China Sea and repeated territorial disputes between China and several ASEAN Member States have brought the region to the forefront of the media. Moving forward, the geopolitical importance of this region will continue to be essential to peace and prosperity in the region, but the immense biodiversity that exists in the South China Sea cannot be overlooked. The impact of continuous development of and the increased maritime traffic in the South China Sea need to be examined not only under economic and political lenses, but under biological and conservational lenses as well.

The South China Sea is uniquely positioned in a tropical and subtropical zone. The array of currents and rivers leading to the area, including the warm and salty Kuroshio current and the waters from the Mekong and Pearl Rivers, result in an extremely diverse habitat. Mangrove forests, estuaries, and coral reefs host thousands of marine species including 2,300 species of fish, 58 cephalopod species, and numerous endangered and critically endangered species like the Green turtle and the Hawksbill turtle.

The stability of the South China Sea marine ecosystem has been challenged by human development for the last sixty years. Starting in the 1940s, increase development along shorelines and advances in fishing technology resulted in the exploitation of critical species like the large yellow croaker (Larimichthys crocea), and the unnecessary destruction of reefs and other species.

A photo dated February 25, 2014 photo shows ongoing Chinese land reclamation at Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, known to China as Chigua Reef. Photo: AP

Practices such as dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning, which use either explosions or sodium cyanide treatment to stun fish and make them easier to capture, are frequently carrier out around coral reefs making their deleterious impact on marine biodiversity even more severe as both practices wreak havoc on surrounding areas. Already, coral scarring or destruction has been observed in the Scarborough Reef, Thitu Reef, Subi Reef, Lankiam Cay, Loaita Banks, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, and the Union Atoll.

These practices continue in spite of the known importance of these marine ecosystems and efforts from several ASEAN Member States to not only better understand the regional biodiversity, but also to protect it. In 1994, for example, the Philippines and Vietnam initiated cooperative efforts under the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea. The past 20 years of research under this program have led to the conclusion that the South China Sea and its many sub-ecosystems play important ecological roles in the development of the surrounding nations, Asia and the world. Additionally, protecting the region is essential to ensure that the South China Sea can continue its role in reducing the impacts of natural disasters, providing support and services for different marine economic activities.

Policy by ASEAN Member States and non-governmental organizations are working to ensure that rapid destruction of these delicate systems is slowed. The Vietnamese Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, for example, proposed that the Truong Sa portion of the Spartly Islands be a future protected area. The United Nations has repeatedly emphasized the importance of protecting coral reefs, and in their ongoing Development Program Study once again highlighted that half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, livelihood and tourism.

Now, the marine ecosystem of the South China Sea once again faces additional challenges that should be thoroughly considered as territorial disputes unravel. On one hand, these disputes have prevented the majority of oil and gas development. Settling these disputes could open the door to more oilrigs and increased environmental threats in the water. In contrast, the military presence in the region is currently challenging preservation. A race to show dominance by rapidly development artificial islands and airstrips in a region densely populated with fragile reefs would clearly be devastating for the South China Sea’s biodiversity. In addition, military groups in the Spratly Islands have further threatened the surrounding habitats by shooting turtles and seabirds, raiding nests, and continuing to fish with explosives.

Regardless of political boundaries and the ongoing territorial disputes, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia all border the expansive South China Sea marine ecosystem. Moving forward, protecting the immense biodiversity is not only beneficial for tourism, fishing, and other political and economic platforms, but it is also essential for life in ASEAN to continue. Marine conservation and sustainable development should therefore be at the front of discussions about the future of the South China Sea.

About the Author: Holly Lauridsen is a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Yale University, where she is conducting research on inflammation and vascular health. She is participating in the United States Virtual Foreign Service internship with the US Mission to ASEAN. She is originally from Portland, Oregon.