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Shaming Beijing over the Spratlys needs to be a green button issue

By Anthony Bergin

International law spoke two months ago on the South China Sea. But to date it’s not looking as though the ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague is having much strategic impact in the region.

We’re back to trying to figure out the best way to get Beijing to blink when it comes to its massive island-building program in the South China Sea.

Beijing has made the South China Sea a first-order issue, so for it to back down would be extremely difficult.

Indonesia’s air force is holding its largest exercise this week, near its Natuna Islands in the South China Sea in a strong show of sovereignty. Indonesia objects to Beijing’s inclusion of waters around the Natunas in its “nine-dash line” under which it claims virtually the whole of the South China Sea.

There have been calls by some analysts for US freedom of navigation operations challenging Beijing’s unlawful claims to bolstered, possibly with the recruitment of regional allies. This could include Mischief Reef in the Spratlys being overflown, given there’s no national airspace above it, no matter which country tries to claim it, and there’s no territorial sea around it.

There have been recommendations to put more US warships in the South China Sea and for Washington and regional countries to reveal the true nature and deeds of Chinese maritime militia ships: trawlers outfitted with strengthened hulls, guard rails to protect the hulls when ramming other ships, and water cannons to harass other vessels.

There have also been calls for the International Maritime Organisation to address Chinese coastguard and maritime militia violations of international regulations to prevent collisions at sea and for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to address the use of fishing vessels as an arm of China’s military.

But one approach that has flown under the radar is for environmental groups to call for an immediate halt to the Chinese island building, which has caused massive damage to coral in one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems.

China’s activities have so far destroyed over 300ha of coral. Beijing’s dredging activities in the South China Sea are significantly disrupting the region’s marine environment. The area’s immense biodiversity shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Hague tribunal’s ruling on July 12 specifically cited China’s harmful environmental practices, even though Chinese propaganda claims its island-building program isn’t doing any environmental harm.

Sometimes the Chinese do respond to external pressure on the environment. After direct pressure from environmental groups, which cleverly used video of sharks having their fins cut off, China stopped serving shark-fin soup at state dinners. It appeared the government was more concerned about being painted in a negative light than the cruelty to sharks.

So could one of the levers that influence Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea be the environment? Is it the kind of big environmental issue that could be used to portray China in a really negative light?

It’s hard to know, but environmental groups have hardly done anything with regards to China’s island building and the damage it’s doing to coral reefs, with far-reaching impacts on the ocean ecosystem. Indeed, there’s been a deafening silence from the environment movement when it comes to condemning coral reef reclamation.

Maybe it doesn’t want to lose support from China on other higher-profile initiatives, such as saving cute baby pandas. Or maybe it’s because advocating on this issue might be seen as a bit too boutique compared with clean energy, where they want China to reduce its use of coal.

Maybe it’s because such groups fear that if they attacked China on this sensitive issue, linked to national security, it might adversely rebound on other groups pressing Beijing on human rights.

Or perhaps it’s a concern that using the kind of tough tactics that Sea Shepherd adopted in the Southern Ocean on whaling would open them up to the charge that they’re being used as proxies by the US.

Beijing has thumbed its nose at the ruling from The Hague. Perhaps one way to get Beijing’s attention would be to have the South China Sea viewed not just in a security context but to also make it an environmental issue.

Unfortunately, when it comes to coral destruction, there are no images of polar bears stranded on melting ice, birds covered in oil, elephants with their tusks removed or turtles caught in fishing nets.

But we need greater engagement from the environmental community to co-operate and work together to make the South China Sea resonate as an environmental issue.

One wonders about Beijing’s reaction should any environmental NGOs send protest ships to the Spratlys. Beijing may well find it politically awkward to respond to non-state environmental protest ships, as opposed to grey-hulled vessels.

Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Originally published: The Australian. October 6, 2016