Research report by Matthew Southerland, Policy Analyst, Security and Foreign Affairs
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, April 12, 2016.
From December 2013 to October 2015, China built artificial islands with a total area of close to 3,000 acres on seven coral reefs it occupies in the Spratly Islands in the southern part of the South China Sea. To build these islands, Chinese dredgers gathered and deposited sand and gravel on top of the reefs. Although the international community’s primary focus regarding these activities has been on issues of sovereignty, security, and geopolitics, international observers have also sounded the alarm about the environmental consequences. Leading marine scientists have commented on this issue, as have the government of the Philippines and the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. Although dredging, land reclamation, and the building of artificial islands are not unique to China, the scale and speed of China’s activities in the South China Sea, the biodiversity of the area, and the significance of the Spratly Islands to the ecology of the region make China’s actions of particular concern.
China’s reclamation activities far outpaced those of the other claimants in the South China Sea. In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that Vietnam had reclaimed approximately 80 acres, Malaysia had reclaimed 70 acres, the Philippines had reclaimed about 14 acres, and Taiwan had reclaimed approximately 8 acres in the Spratly Islands.
The South China Sea is a highly biodiverse marine area. According to one scientific paper, it is home to 571 species of reef coral; the Spratly Islands alone have 333 species of reef coral. In contrast, the Caribbean has less than 65 reef coral species. Moreover, a body of research by marine biologists dating back to the early 1990s indicates that currents carry young fish spawned in the Spratly Islands to coastal areas of the South China Sea, and that the coral reefs of the Spratly Islands may play a role in replenishing depleted fish stocks in those coastal areas.
Prior to the commencement of China’s dredging and island building in the Spratly Islands, the South China Sea’s coral reefs were already under heavy stress. Coral loss due to bleaching, disease, and destructive fishing methods has occurred, and these reefs, like others around the world, face threats from ocean acidification and rising sea levels.
Damage to the Marine Environment
Did China’s Activities Violate International Law?
Download the full report at China’s Island Building in the South China Sea [PDF].