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Catch-22 in the South China Sea: why preserving fish stocks is key to a resolution

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Despite upcoming talks, Manila’s deferential stance to Beijing, and wider ASEAN disunity, mean no end in sight for China’s island-building in the South China Sea. Yet those islands will destroy the coral reefs they are built on, and the very fish stocks China wants to control in the first place.

China’s provocations and ASEAN’s impotence

Chinese and Filipino diplomats are still deciding when and where to pick up talks on the South China Sea in 2018, but in terms of substance, the two sides are already on the same page. Li Keqiang of China and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines spent the 31st ASEAN summit in October jointly insisting a “code of conduct” could stabilise tensions in the South China Sea – but failed to mask the lack of real progress.

The current state of affairs already represents a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. The Philippines, host of this year’s ASEAN summit, has effectively abandoned an unequivocal 2016 ruling in its favour from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) over China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters.

China rejected the validity of both the ruling and the PCA’s authority, but the Philippines and its ASEAN partners also failed to stand by the decision. Among member states, only Vietnam has come out in direct support of the PCA decision. China already ignores a 2002 declaration of conduct applying to the South China Sea. There is no indication any new code would be more binding.

This is unfortunate, because the PCA ruling addressed some of the most urgent ramifications of China’s actions in the region. It was particularly scathing in regard to environmental violations, stating “China had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”

The inherent irony of the dispute is that dredging the sea floor to construct artificial islands endangers the very fisheries Beijing seeks to control. China’s own territorial waters are dead zones as a result of overfishing and industrial pollution, one of the main…

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