South China Sea Sorrows
“Call It as You Will”
The name may change, we hear many names for it. Prominently in mass media, it is known as The South China Sea, or The West Philippine Sea, or The East Sea depending on where you pick up your morning paper in the world. But for uniformity in these writings, we will go by its most common. The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres (1,400,000 sq mi). The area’s importance largely results from one-third of the world’s shipping sailing through its waters and that it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.
So why the arguments? Well, apart from Diplomatic fighting, name calling and historical claims from some of the biggest nations in the world there are some very important resources, shipping routes and strategic geographic points within the 3.5million km. The South China Sea is an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense. It is the second most used sea lane in the world, while in terms of world annual merchant fleet tonnage, over 50% passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. Over 1.6 million m³ (10 million barrels) of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca, where there are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.
The region has proven oil reserves of around 1.2 km³ (7.7 billion barrels), with an estimate of 4.5 km³ (28 billion barrels) in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 7,500 km³ (266 trillion cubic feet). A 2013 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration raised the total estimated oil reserves to 11 billion barrels. In 2014 China began to drill for oil in waters disputed with Vietnam. According to studies made by the DENR, Philippines, this body of water holds 1/3 of the entire world’s marine biodiversity. However the fish stocks in the area are depleted, and countries are using fishing bans as a means of asserting their sovereignty claims. Indonesia’s maritime waters have been breached by fishing fleets from Vietnam and the Philippines leading to their ships being destroyed in revenge by Indonesia.
This leads us to one of the most monumental challenges confronting the Asia-Pacific region, none is as underrated as the destruction of the marine ecosystem. The South China Sea’s status as a critical waterway draws attention away from the fact that littoral Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse global marine bio-systems, hosting over 3/4s of the world’s coral species and over 1/3 of reef-fish species. Over the past two decades, there have been numerous documented instances of Chinese fishermen in the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters taking part in the large-scale illegal capture of fish using cyanide, dynamite, and detonating cords. The wide range of sea life targeted has included endangered sea turtles, giant clams, giant oysters, sharks, eels, and large pieces of highly ornamental coral. Additionally tensions have been running high over the Chinese reclamation projects in contested waters that to this day continues to go on, despite having lost the case brought against it in July 2016 at the UN tribunal. China summarily boycotted the proceedings, and called the ruling “ill-founded”.
Call it as you will, but what we cannot deny is that while there is diplomatic fighting over this body of water, without strict governance and international unity the damage to what’s in this water and the people that live on its edge will be irreversible.