• Nyayshastram

Environmental Issues in the South China Sea

Rana Prithvi R, Student, Tamil Nadu National Law University

Introduction The South China Sea is a disputed territory between many south-east Asian countries such as Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. It is a sea route which is crucial for trade in Asia. It consists of more than two hundred small islands[1], reefs, cays and sand bars with fewer settlements and most of which are submerged in water. It can be grouped into:

1. Spratly Islands 2. Paracel Islands 3. Pratas Islands 4. Macclesfield Bank 5. Scarborough Shoal

Much of the territories are in dispute with many nations. Each country has a claim overlap with another country. The route is the second most used sea route for trade nearly fifty per cent of the merchant ships passing through the route. Islands possess a large volume of natural resources which is the reason countries claim those territories. Oil reserves in the area measure up to seven billion barrels which is proven by measure and another twenty-eight billion barrels is estimated to be present which is yet to be measured. Coral reefs in the sea are also destroyed with fishing and other reefs are under the siege. It causes severe transboundary pollution harm as most of the claimants in the area refuse to take any measures or obligations.[2]

Environmental Issues

There is rich marine biodiversity in the area with many fisheries and fleets ranging from small boats to modern ships capture them. There is a danger of loss of food security, livelihood and quality to a few million in the region affecting the ecosystem. There are reports suggesting that due to overfishing causes coral degradation[3]. It happens due to the construction of artificial islands by the claimants and it threatens to change the ecology systems in the area. Another major contributor to pollution is the shipping traffic of the world as it contributes to one-third of the overall ship traffic in the world. Nearly one million vessels are used in the region for fishing as three million people depend on it for the income. Species such as bird, tuna, in particular, are the worst affected. There is an estimation that the fishing in the area will decline anywhere between nine to fifty-nine per cent by the year 2045 due to the over rising and acidification with the emission of carbon dioxide.

The Spratly Islands is one of the sites where there is a defence buildup by in China in particular. They have constructed artificial islands in the area after land reclamation which has dirtied the natural ecosystems. Moreover, with the countries’ economy growing, the consumption of fossil fuels also increases pollution. Oil drilling is a major contributor to pollution in the area. The number of barrels left in the region is uncertain as every nation quotes a different number. Parcel Islands is another major area where there is both China and Vietnam have claimed the entire island belonging to them. China has conducted all the experiments in the region without conducting environmental impact assessment as mentioned by China in the 2016 position paper to the Tribunal.[4]

Developments and Cooperation From the 2000s, United Nations Environmental Programme has brought in some cooperation amount the nations in the area. It brought together scientists and experts to ascertain the environmental challenge in the region. Joint Oceanographic Marine Science Research Expedition from 1996- 2007 also had some cooperation among the nations. In the year of 2013, Philippines initiated arbitration proceedings against China's claim based on the nine-dash line which includes the Spratly Islands also. China responded by arguing that it has absolute sovereignty over the region based on historical customs and traditions. Philippines, on the other hand, have claims based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the year 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration passed an award in favour of Philippines and held that China’s claims were ill-founded about the nine-dash line. Tribunal also criticised China’s actions and land reclamation protest causing severe harm to the coral reefs and ecosystems in the Spratly Islands. But China rejected the rulings and even Taiwan which administrates one of the islands also rejected the ruling.[5]

Suggestions and Conclusion

The United States has always been an observer in the region by sending warships and large vessels. China on the other hands uses its economic strength to counter-attack other small nations. ASEAN has also initiated some discussions in the part where all the countries claiming the territories are members. One suggestion will be to have multi-party talks or meeting to fix the claims. Secondly, the matter can be referred to the United Nations where the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea can be used to decide the disputes. In recent times, China has increased its defence activities in the region which should be withdrawn for peaceful talks for territory and environment. All the nations involved in the disputed should be made to pay damages for the environmental damage caused in a proportionate manner.


[1] Zhiguo Gao and Bing Bing Jia, The Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea: History, Status, and Implications, 107(1), The American Journal of International Law, 98, 98-99 (January 2013), [2] Ralph Jennings, South China Sea Succumbing to Pollution Due to Political Impasse,Voice of America, last seen on 01/08/2020. [3] James Borton and Jackson Ewing, As nations fight for control, South China Sea coral reefs are dying in silence, South China Morning Post,, last seen on 08/07/2020. [4] Paula Knack, The Environmental Costs of China’s Maritime Ambition, The Diplomat, last seen on 01/08/2020. [5] David Rosenberg, Environmental Pollution around the South China Sea: Developing a Regional Response, 21(1) Contemporary Southeast Asia, 119, 130-135 (1999).

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