An environmental turn in the South China Sea disputes

On April 13, 2015, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) released a statement calling out China’s reclamation activities as causing “irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea (SCS)/West Philippine Sea (WPS).” The DFA pointed out that China’s activities have so far caused destruction to over 300 hectares of coral reef systems, amounting to an annual economic loss of US$100 million as well as constituting a threat to the livelihood of peoples and communities in the littoral countries.

The statement also criticized China for “tolerating harmful practices and harvesting of endangered species” protected under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This is in relation to the number of incidents where Chinese fishers were found to be poaching giant clams, green sea turtles and other endangered species in the WPS/SCS, to which the Philippine government has already raised several protests.

The Philippines has long voiced out its concern and opposition to China’s reclamation activities, but much attention has been on how China’s unilateral actions violate the terms of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC-SCS), how they create strategic dilemmas and military threats for other claimant states, and how they can undermine freedom of navigation and overflight in one of the world’s busiest sea lines of communication (SLOC). Thus, the recent statement on the environmental impact of China’s reclamation is a notable development as it emphasizes this equally critical but often overlooked angle of the SCS issue.

Ecological heart of Southeast Asia

Apart from its strategic location, its role in facilitating global trade, and its potential for hydrocarbon resources, the SCS, and its adjacent seas, is among the most abundant marine ecosystems in the world. A study by the UN Environment Programme in 2004 cited the high concentration of coral reefs in the seas of the region – 34% of the world’s coral reefs, despite occupying only 2.5% of the total ocean surface. The SCS, as the biggest body of water connecting the marginal seas of the region, plays a critical role in sustaining this vibrant marine environment.

The coral reefs in the SCS are vital to the marine biodiversity of the region as well as the food and economic security of littoral countries. They serve as the habitat and spawning ground for a variety of fish and other marine species. This is significant given that littoral states such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are among the largest fishing countries in the world, and fish constitutes a key part of diet of the people in the region.

Coral reefs contribute to ecotourism and are also important sources of chemicals and compounds that have pharmaceutical and other economic value. In addition, coral reefs provide protection to coastal communities by reducing the impact of waves created by storms and other severe weather phenomena. This becomes of particular significance because coastal communities in the region are becoming more vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and rising sea levels.

Given their importance, the coral reef ecosystems as well as the overall marine environment of the SCS must be protected. Dr. Edgardo Gomez, an eminent marine scientist from the University of the Philippines-Marine Sciences Institute (UP-MSI), studied how the massive scale of China’s construction over the rocks and shallow reefs are a clear source of environmental concern, as these involve dredging sand from the ocean floor and dumping them over entire coral reef systems.

But apart from these, coral reefs are also threatened by illegal, unregulated, and uncontrolled fishing (IUUF) and other destructive practices (e.g. bottom trawling, cyanide poisoning, and use of explosives and dynamites) which are committed not only by fishers from China but also by those from other littoral countries. Aside from man-made activities, climate change and warming of the oceans also pose serious danger to the coral reefs.

Highlighting marine environment issues

Drawing attention to the destruction of coral reefs and the overall environmental degradation in the SCS demonstrates how the SCS dispute is not only a political, military, and economic concern among the claimant parties, but is also about the preservation of regional and global commons. Thus, every country has a legal and even moral responsibility to ensure that any activity in the SCS does not cause significant and long-term damage to the marine environment.

A heavier responsibility, however, is placed upon the bigger countries given how the sheer scale of their actions can have wider impact on the environment. The challenge for bigger countries is to demonstrate that their commitment to marine environment protection is translated from rhetoric into action.

Expanding the discourse to include the environmental dimension also builds on the advocacy for a rules-based and norms-based approach to the SCS. This includes not only the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but also the many international regimes and conventions such as CBD, CITES, and even customary international law. Framing the SCS disputes as an environmental concern and not just a sovereignty and jurisdiction issue broadens the number of stakeholders to include not only states but even non-state actors such as the private sector, civil society, environmental groups, and the scientific community.

Walk the talk

Perhaps most importantly, the Philippines, by drawing attention to the environmental issues in the SCS, must demonstrate that it is compliant with international agreements and that it is playing a proactive role in finding solutions to environmental challenges. These can be accomplished both through diplomacy and domestic policy.

On the diplomacy track, the Philippines should consistently call for greater cooperation in protecting the marine environment of Southeast Asia in fora such as the ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the UN. It can also seek the greater inclusion of environmental issues in the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS being crafted by ASEAN and China. Also, the Philippines’ chairing of the ASEAN Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment (AWGCME), hosting of ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB) and the Partnerships in the Environmental Management of the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), and participation in the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) provide the country important platforms to further promote marine environment protection.

The Philippines should also not be precluded from pursuing collaborative efforts with other claimant parties and regional stakeholders in conserving the marine environment. This would demonstrate that, beyond politics, the country’s environmental advocacy is driven by a genuine concern for the welfare and future of the whole region. Nevertheless, the application of international law through the arbitration case filed by the Philippines will still be considered as the long -term measure to not only manage and resolve the disputes, but to also promote a rules-based environmental governance of the SCS.

On the policy track, the Philippines should also ensure that it does not contribute to the further degradation of the marine environment, not only in the WPS/SCS but in the entirety of its own maritime domain. This can be attained by enhancing the enforcement of laws and regulations on fishing, developing the necessary physical infrastructure and technical capabilities on marine conservation, and empowering local coastal communities toward more sustainable use of the seas.

The actions taken to combat IUUF, which resulted in the recent the lifting of the ‘yellow card’ warning by the European Union, is a good example of the Philippine government ’walking the talk’ in ensuring that fishing practices are not to the detriment of the marine environment. The challenge now is how these positive efforts can be sustained and strengthened.

As an archipelagic nation, the Philippines is fully cognizant of how the marine environment is crucial to the economic security and social well-being of littoral countries and the entire region. This is why the Philippines has been pointing out that China’s large scale reclamation threatens the fragile marine environment; these actions will have a negative impact on the environmental and economic security not only of the Philippines but also of the rest of ASEAN and other neighboring states. –

Louie Dane C. Merced is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Merced can be reached at

This was first published in the CIRSS Commentaries, a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues. FSI is on Facebook and Twitter.

The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.