Will China's artificial islands damage the South China Sea?

As part of its military expansion, China has been constructing artificial islands over existing reef structures within the resource-rich South China Sea.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015.

The resource-rich South China Sea is the second most frequently used sea lane in the world. Recently, this sea, spreading over 1.3 million square miles from Singapore and the Malacca Straights to the Strait of Taiwan, has also become the center of major political tensions, with multiple neighboring countries making strong territorial claims and turning the sea into Asia’s most potentially dangerous point of conflict.

At the center of the tension, some 500 miles from mainland China in an area closest to Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, lie the Spratly Islands, a cluster of 14 islands, islets, cays, and more than 100 reefs. At present, the islands are mostly occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines. However, China has recently undertaken enormous steps to increase its presence within the island cluster. 

As initially reported by The New York Times, China has been creating artificial islands in the area. These islands now house strategic ports, radar facilities, airfields, lighthouses, and support buildings; all of which make it possible for China to perform sustained air and sea patrols and thus strengthen Chinese military presence in the island area.

But while the international military tensions continue to rise, China’s expansion into the Spratly Islands is undermining the environment.

In order to create the artificial islands that China is using as a basis for their military magnification, dredgers – underwater excavation vessels designed to gather bottom sediments along a seabed and used primarily for maintaining harbors and waterways – have been destroying enormous reef structures and pouring sand and gravel over the remaining areas to provide stability for the newly forming landmass.

The resulting consequences involve massive and most likely irreparable damage to one of the world’s most biologically diverse marine ecosystems. The South China Sea contains more than 500 varieties of reef-building coral – an enormous number compared to the 70 varieties in the Caribbean Sea – as well at least 10 percent of the world’s fish stock, John McManus, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami told Time.com.

Though the potential for massive oil and gas deposits within the sea are assumed, the depth and methods for access to such reserves remain unknown. Meanwhile the phenomenal scope of aquatic life in the region has been well-documented but still not fully explored.

“It’s likely that hundreds of thousands of species are still undiscovered in the reefs of the South China Sea,” reported Time.com's Hannah Beech from Tanmen, China.

Because the Spratly Islands are also claimed at least in portions by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, China’s military bolstering has prompted varying responses by many other governments – including the United States, which recently sailed the USS Lassen, a guided missile destoyer, to within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of China’s new artificial islands. 

“China's actions could erect a Great Wall of self-isolation" in the South China Sea, said US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, addressing a recent graduation at the United States Naval Academy. “Instead of working toward the, quote, 'win-win cooperation' that Beijing publicly says it wants, China plays by its own rules undercutting those principles.”

Chinese officials insist that, in ecological terms, they are doing no harm in the region, and describe the Spratly Island building boom as "environmentally friendly." Earlier this year, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China’s island-building efforts in the Spratlys “strictly follow the principle of conducting green project and building ecological islands and reefs" and that "the impact on the ecological system of coral reefs is limited.”

But Prof. McManus told Time.com that this might be true only in the sense "the affected reefs were already scarred by giant-clam harvesting." The initial destruction, according to McManus was severe but the effect from island building could be permanent. “Once a portion of coral reef has been buried under tons of sand and gravel, it cannot ever recover."

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