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Overlapping interests

Rivals at sea

by Yvonne Walter
Vietnam needs more than coastal fishing

Vietnam needs more than coastal fishing

The South China Sea is of global relevance – not least, because of shipping routes. A large share of China’s and Japan’s exports pass through these waters, and so do both countries’ oil imports. Von Yvonne Walter

The Malacca Strait, which links the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean is one of the busiest maritime routes on Earth. One fifth to one quarter of world trade is shipped through it. Another important route is the Taiwan Strait between the island of the same name and mainland China.

Moreover, there are probably considerable oil and gas reserves under the South China Sea. Estimates vary, and Chinese experts even believe these resources may exceed those of Kuwait. According to them, 17.7 billion tons of crude oil are underneath the South China Sea, whereas the comparative figure for Kuwait is only 13 billion tons. Beijing wants to ensure that no other nation exploits this hydrocarbon wealth, but obviously several South-East Asian governments are interested in these resources too.

Access to fishing grounds is similarly disputed. In 1988, according to estimates, about eight percent of humanity’s annual fish catch was from the South China Sea. The share has since risen. Ever greater fishing capacities, however, are depleting stocks that can no longer recover fully. China, Vietnam and the Philippines are the major players. In May, the giant Chinese ship Hainan Baosha 001 started operating. It has 14 production lines with a capacity to process a total of 2100 tons of seafood per day.

Such production levels, however, will not be sustained in the long run. The coral reefs near the South China Sea’s shores are already overfished. Stocks are decreasing farther out at sea as well. The Spratly Islands have become an important fishing ground. The impact of this trend on traditional fishing communities is harsh. Since their small boats are not suitable for long distance travel, their business is deteriorating, and so is food security for their coastal communities.

Ruthless exploitation of the seas is obviously harming eco­systems and biological diversity. Oversized ships are destroying reefs that offer unique habitats. The damage is hard to assess, however, because maritime biology is underresearched. In 2009 alone, some 66 so far unknown fish species were discovered, and there are probably many more.

Scholars from the University of Miami and Taiwan’s National Academy want the Spratly Islands area to be declared a Marine Peace Park. They point out that it would help the South China Sea to recover. Such a Park, however, will only be possible if all countries concerned restrict their fishermen from hunting in those waters.

Yvonne Walter