As China continues to expand into a superpower large enough to one day rival the United States, the support and cooperation of Southeast Asian countries is imperative. Since 2000 China’s trade with the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries rose from $32 billion to $350 billion in 2014, with estimates for 2015 reaching as high as $500 billion. Despite Southeast Asia’s economic growth being boosted by Chinese investment, partner countries are now starting to feel the consequences of befriending their power-hungry neighbor. Not only is China being accused of ecocide by a community of international scientists, but the geopolitics of large scale pollution tell us how vast the imbalance of power has become in the region.
Satellite images show a number of artificial islands built by China amongst the Spratly islands of the South China Sea. What was once only 4 km2 of land above sea level created by China, has now transformed to 12.82 km2 despite several countries having a claim over this area. The methods used for expansion, particularly excavation by dredging sand, have caused irreversible damage to aquatic ecosystems. The Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that Chinese land reclamation has already destroyed 300 acres of coral reef and caused an annual loss worth $100 million. Coral reefs can stop up to 90% of wave strength – a crucial safety factor in typhoon-prone regions with highly populated coastal towns. These reefs are also essential for food security because the spawn produced there gets carried through currents towards coasts, allowing the replenishment of fish, an already fragile resource due to avid overfishing. The Chinese government has made no official statement admitting the damage caused by their land reclamation, even when Chinese scientists predicted an 80% decline of sensitive coral in the South China Sea and danger of extinction for the remaining 20%.
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Recent events have refocused attention on resources as a potential driver of maritime territory disputes.
The recent clashes between Vietnam and China over the latter's deployment of a deep-water drilling rig in disputed waters have refocused the spotlight on energy in the South China Sea. How important is it as a driver in China's South China Sea policy? To what extent is competition over seabed hydrocarbons compounding tensions between China and Southeast Asian territorial claimants?