‘Destroying our reefs with impunity’: The new row in the South China Sea

‘Destroying our reefs with impunity’: The new row in the South China Sea

September 22, 2023

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Singapore: A new flashpoint is emerging in the South China Sea, with the Philippines accusing Beijing’s maritime militia of causing mass destruction of coral in the disputed, resource-rich waterway.

Philippine authorities are now considering taking a new complaint to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague after uncovering severe damage to a reef and a shoal in the Spratly Islands – which it considers part of its exclusive economic zone.

China has been accused of operating fleets of so-called maritime militia, boats that have the appearance of fishing trawlers, to reinforce its claims at sea. Now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Coast Guard suspect large-scale Chinese harvesting of coral to be responsible for the “lifeless” state of the underwater ecosystem.

Images captured from underwater surveys of Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal in the South China Sea by Philippine authorities. Credit: Philippine Coast Guard

“The continued swarming for indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities of the Chinese maritime militia in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment,” said Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela.

Surveys of the seabed at Escoda Shoal exposed “visible discoloration of its seabed, strongly indicating that deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain”, he added.

Recently, Chinese vessels have blocked resupply missions to an old warship serving as a Philippine territorial outpost on a contested shoal, at one point firing a water cannon.

The Sierra Madre was grounded by the Philippine Navy in the Spratly Islands in 1999 and still serves as a military outpost.Credit: AP

Beijing also broadened its sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea with the release of a controversial new 10-dash line, replacing the previous nine-dash version that was ruled invalid by an international tribunal in 2016. The landmark case was instigated by Manila.

The flare-up over coral has led Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros to call for financial compensation from China, making a comparison with reparations paid by Japan after the World War II.

Beijing has dismissed the allegations as “disinformation”.

“The Philippines’ accusations have no factual basis,” China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Thursday.

The Nine Dash Line: By asserting its control over the Spratly Islands, Beijing is able to re-enforce the eastern edge of earlier claims in the South China Sea.Credit: Google Maps

“We urge relevant party of the Philippines to stop creating a political drama from fiction. If the Philippines truly cares about the ecological environment of the South China Sea, it should tow away the illegally ‘grounded’ warship as soon as possible, stop it from discharging polluted water into the ocean and not let the rusting warship bring irrevocable harm to the ocean.”

The WWII-era Sierra Madre was intentionally run aground by the Philippines in 1999 to mark its territory and continues to be manned by rotating troops.

The Philippines has edged closer to the United States and security partners such as Australia since the election of President Ferdinand Marcos jnr in May 2022.

But while the South China Sea is a key arena in the rivalry between the US and China, Manila’s protests were about asserting Philippine sovereignty, said Jay Batongbacal, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of its Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

“This narrative that we’re really just a US proxy is just an excuse for [China] to try and de-legitimise the Philippines’ interest,” he said.

“The coral reef issue is very important for us. In the Philippines there is widespread awareness about the need to protect the environment and try to conserve reef resources because these are the basis of our fisheries and we are an archipelagic country.”

“The fact is that China has for more than a decade now been destroying our reefs with impunity.”

Manila was standing up for itself after the pivot of Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte towards Beijing, he said.

“After six years of silence there is pent-up anger and frustration over the previous administration’s inaction and its accommodation of China,” Batongbacal said. “It’s only really now that the results of accommodating China are really coming out.”

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