The South China Sea’s Environmental Crisis

ATLANTA – With US and Chinese warships increasingly playing chicken, and China transforming atolls and outcroppings into militarized artificial islands, the South China Sea presents a striking picture of Sino-American strategic competition. But China’s expansive assertion of offshore sovereignty is not only challenging others’ territorial rights and free navigation of international sea lanes. It also is threatening a central feature of the Southeast Asian ecosystem, and thus the region’s economic future.

China has refused to submit its territorial claims to international review, even though six of the ten countries surrounding the South China Sea have claims to various rocks, shoals, reefs, and resources within its 1.4 million square miles. China also has ignored the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) 2016 ruling affirming the Philippines’ historic rights to the Spratly Islands and dismissing China’s outsize claim to some 90% of the South China Sea (based on the so-called nine-dash line).

For Southeast Asia’s 600 million people, the territorial crisis in the South China Sea is not some distant future concern. China’s actions already are harming the region’s maritime ecosystems and livelihoods. That is the key lesson of the book Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground, by James Borton of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. Putting aside geopolitics considerations, Borton focuses on the ground truth: Chinese exploitation of the South China Sea is threatening the region’s future through the ecological, environmental, and economic damage that it is causing.

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