24 September 2015

Science: “China’s Island Building Is Destroying Reefs”

Here are some of my recent thoughts on Chinese dredging and island-manufacturing activities in the South China Sea (SCS):

While countries other than China have also been involved in dredging and island-construction in the SCS, China has far surpassed its neighbors—combined—in both construction to date and future potential. It has deployed one of the world’s largest dredging fleets on industrial scale. Compare the acreage constructed: China 2,900+; Vietnam 80; Malaysia 70; Philippines, 14; Taiwan, 8. Compare airstrips: China—2 complete, 1 developing, 1 started. Other parties have 1 maximum apiece, all inferior in length and quality. Whether in scale or sophistication, there is simply no grounds for conflation.

Even if SCS issues are raised during his visit to the United States, Xi Jinping will dismiss any verbal objections to Chinese actions. To actually influence his decision-making and uphold vital international norms, the U.S. must impose costs. After the summit, U.S. forces should engage in Freedom of Navigation operations to demonstrate that China can’t manufacture sovereignty or throw sand in the gears of international law and Freedom of the Seas. No matter how much coral cuttings dredgers dump on it, if a reef is naturally underwater at high tide it is entitled to zero territorial waters and airspace.

History and politics complicate the overlapping positions of mainland China and Taiwan. Beijing takes Taipei’s claims as its own, because it regards Taiwan as its own. Taipei can make a positive contribution by demonstrating actively that principled beliefs (shared cross-Strait) need not engender threats or coercive behavior (unacceptable approaches that nobody need fear from Taipei), or exclusionary efforts. Taipei has special conciliation and cooperation potential that can promote peace in a vital but vulnerable region that remains haunted by history.

For details on the environmental devastation caused by Chinese dredging and feature-augmentation activities, I highly recommend the following article:

Christina Larson, “China’s Island Building Is Destroying Reefs,” Science 349.6255 (25 September 2015): 1434.

Land creation and dredging in the South China Sea come at the expense of corals and fisheries

…over the past 2 to 3 years, China has created 13 square kilometers of island area—about a quarter the size of Manhattan.

That is not just a challenge to its neighbors, which also claim some parts of the sea. By piling sand, gravel, and dead coral onto reef flats to create new land and dredging shipping channels nearby, China has destroyed large areas of biodiverse reef that served as nurseries for fisheries throughout much of the SCS. “This is the most rapid permanent loss of coral reef in human history,” says John McManus, a marine biologist at the University of Miami in Florida. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do this.”

Now, China “has deployed one of the world’s largest dredging fleets,” says Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute in Newport, Rhode Island. The area of newly built land—where buildings, concrete plants, and three airstrips have been built or are under construction, according to CSIS—is more than 10 times the total area that other SCS nations cumulatively have built up, Erickson notes. “Whether in scale or sophistication, there are simply no grounds for comparison.” …

Scientists have little hope that environmental concerns will make a difference. “China keeps saying it cares about the environment,” Lyons notes, but it has not published an environmental impact assessment for any of its island building activities in the SCS.

In spite of Xi’s reassurance, other countries will feel the consequences. “For centuries, many of the countries surrounding the SCS have been dependent on fishery resources from these chains of reefs and islands,” [Ed] Gomez [, a marine biologist at the University of the Philippines, Manila] says. Now, he says, key reefs are “forever gone” beneath the landfill and concrete.

For related analysis, see:

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Essay: China’s Island Building Campaign Could Hint toward Further Expansions in Indian Ocean,” USNI News, 17 September 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold,” The National Interest, 26 August 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2015.

Andrew Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Dredging Fleet Shores up Beijing’s Position in South China Sea and Beyond,” Lowy Interpreter, 12 August 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Keeping the South China Sea a Peaceful Part of the Global Commons,” The National Interest, 27 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Follow the Dragon Tracks: China’s Emerging Presence From the South China Sea to Facilities Access in the Indian Ocean,” keynote address to Congressional Defense and Foreign Policy Forum, Defense Forum Foundation, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 24 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hearing on “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 23 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Archaeology and the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 20 July 2015.

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Djibouti Likely to Become China’s First Indian Ocean Outpost,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 91 (11 July 2015).

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “Dragon Tracks: Emerging Chinese Access Points in the Indian Ocean Region,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 18 June 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ,” The National Interest, 27 April 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “See China’s Secret Ocean Airbase,” Live interview on “Today Asia” Program, CNN International, 17 April 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Pandora’s Sandbox: China’s Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs, 13 July 2014.