It’s a classic case of international greed and bickering in the name of economic “progress”. And it’s destroying vast numbers of animals and their homes.
China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, as you can see from the red line on the map. The claim is patently ludicrous since the Sea is bordered by five other countries, too: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Why does it all matter? Three big reasons:
* Under the sea bed are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s more than the reserves of some of the world’s biggest energy exporters.
* There are also a lot of fish there –10 percent of the fish still left in the oceans according to the Center for a New American Security. That means a lot of enormous fishing trawlers competing to scoop up all the living creatures they can.
* And one third of all global trade in goods is hauled through the sea every year in huge container ships and tankers (20 percent of which are going to and from the United States).
Three years ago, the Philippines filed suit against China, and this week the International Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in its favor.
Not that China is going to take any notice of that. The Chinese military is in the middle of a massive construction project to turn one of the tiny Spratly Islands into a major military base from which it will be able to dominate the entire region. The base includes a two-mile airfield on a tiny outcrop known as Fiery Cross, which has required dredging up enormous quantities of sand and rock from under the surrounding ocean, and the complete destruction of one of the biggest, most pristine and most beautiful coral reefs in the world.
The Spratly Islands are home to 571 different known species of coral. And the coral reefs are home to one of the greatest remaining arrays of fish and other wildlife on the planet. They are born there, feed there, and give birth there. According to biologist Dr. Alan Freidlander of the University of Hawaii, the reefs are “one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth.”
Or at least they used to be. Dr. Friedlander describes the dredging and building on the coral reefs as having caused “irreparable damage” as the inhabitants are literally buried alive.
A massive construction project involving the complete destruction of one of the most pristine and beautiful coral reefs in the world.China’s so-called land “reclamation” has wiped out the reefs and all the surrounding seabed, leaving what Admiral Harry Harris Jr. of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which also patrols the region, has called a “great wall of sand”.
Nobody wants to go to war over China’s attempt to own the sea and all its “resources”, and once the new military bases are built and the “irreparable damage” has been done, the Chinese government will probably make some conciliatory noises to the people of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, who are currently appealing to the United States to stop China militarizing the whole region.
It’s unlikely, though certainly possible, that this will escalate into a military conflict. But whatever happens, one party to the conflict has already lost: the fish, the marine mammals, the cephalopods, the corals, the plant life, and all the millions of other living beings. For all the countries arguing and posturing over the ocean, the fish are simply “resources”, the corals building materials, and everything else just “collateral damage.”
Much more destruction is coming as oil and gas wells are drilled, fossil fuels are mined and then burned up, pouring billions more tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further heating the planet, and driving yet more animals out of their homes and habitats.
And so it goes. So much for the South China Sea. Next up: the Arctic, whose bordering nations are likewise getting ready to fight over as the polar ice melts away, giving access to yet more “resources”.
How will it end? Presumably when we’ve mined, deforested, trawled and poisoned everything we can lay our hands on.
Little can be done to prevent this vast folly. Indeed, even if meaningful steps were being taken to stem the destruction and put limits on our global industrial civilization, it’s almost certainly too late to turn the situation around.
What remains for those of us who care, meanwhile, is to protect any of the living creatures we can. They are not simply “resources”. They have their own lives, and their suffering is immense. It’s hard for us to completely avoid contributing to that suffering. But at least we can live as lightly as possible and participate as little as possible in the mass extinction that’s now unfolding.