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South China Sea threatened by ‘a series of catastrophes’

The South China Sea is home to more than a tenth of all the fish caught in the world, but fish stocks there are now on the verge of collapsing. Overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs have been exacerbated by maritime disputes and development projects. Greg Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The South China Sea has become a dangerous strategic flashpoint. The busy waterway is home to major shipping lanes and fisheries that account for more than a tenth of all the fish caught in the world. Greg Poling is the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We spoke recently about the ecological toll the disputes in the region are taking on food supplies and the livelihoods of many.

  • Greg Poling:

    While ecologically speaking, the South China Sea is arguably the most productive fishing zone on the planet — it accounts for about 12% of total fish catch and employs over half the fishing vessels in the world — and amid this decades long theory of maritime disputes between China and its neighbors those fish stocks for now are on the verge of collapse.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what happens when those fish stocks inevitably collapse at the rate that we're fishing them?

  • Greg Poling:

    Well the first thing is Southeast Asian communities will be devastated. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of people that rely on fishing or fishing related industries and millions of more that rely on the fish and other marine life for food security. So it doesn't matter nearly as much in China as it does in the Philippines or Vietnam or Indonesia. And it's also going to accelerate the disputes. Right? Because everybody is going to be in a race the pool the last fish from a dying sea.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. And when you're talking about dying sea you're also talking about the impact that's happening to the coral reefs, the nurseries right now as all of these fishing vessels converge and try to catch those fish?

  • Greg Poling:

    That's right. So we have a series of catastrophes piling on top of one another. The first is the overfishing problem. Because there are outstanding maritime disputes nobody can agree on whose water these are. There are incentives for all of the countries to keep pushing their fisheries out there as signals of sovereignty. And on top of that in recent years you've had China's very famous island building campaign that's destroyed thousands of acres of reef. Plus a series of harmful fishing practices, especially the harvesting of giant clams which mainly from the Chinese side destroys the entire reef. And that has damaged over 50,000 acres of reef.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And just to put in perspective, coral reefs don't come back overnight.

  • Greg Poling:

    That's right. Some of these, the ones that you've probably seen pictures of Chinese airbases going on top of, those are dead forever. A lot of the others could come back but it's going to take decades of being left alone and right now there is very little chance that they're going to be left alone.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Give us also a list of the countries that are all disputing it because when you look at different maps there's different people that have claims to similar kind of overlapping areas.

  • Greg Poling:

    So if we just talk about the waters, set aside down themselves, we're talking about China and Taiwan on one hand and then Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. All with overlapping claims to the waters and the reefs and no path forward at the moment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what is the U.S. Interest in all of this? Where do we stand? Who do we support or who are we allied with?

  • Greg Poling:

    The U.S.'s interest is primarily about the rules, right? So we don't really care ultimately who controls which rock or who controls which reef. That is for the states to decide themselves. We want to make sure they do it according to the rules. And the problem from the U.S. perspective is that China's claim and Taiwan's claim doesn't follow those rules. Every country in the world under international law gets a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone in which only they can fish. China claims a thousand miles — five times the legal limit. And we're not prepared to accept that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what about the ship traffic that goes through this area?

  • Greg Poling:

    It is the busiest shipping here on the planet. The Strait of Malacca at the southern end of the South China Sea sees more ships faster than anywhere else — about three times that of the Panama Canal. None of the parties have an interest in stopping that traffic. The Chinese are just as reliant on that trade as anybody else but inevitably if there is a conflict, you're going to see traffic have to divert around the South China Sea with a not inconsiderable cost.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if China takes a more aggressive stance towards say the Philippines, does the United States get involved then?

  • Greg Poling:

    If the Chinese use force the Philippines are unique here and that they are a U.S. treaty ally, the United States is legally and morally bound to come to the defense of the Philippines if Filipino troops or planes or vessels are attacked. And when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Manila after the failed Hanoi summit with North Korea a couple months ago, he clarified exactly this point that a Chinese attack on Filipino assets in disputed waters would fall under that obligation for the U.S. to respond.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And at the same time, Filipino leader Duterte is trying to make I guess closer ties or forge closer ties with China at the same time, right?

  • Greg Poling:

    That's right. Duterte came into office in 2016 promising closer ties with Beijing believing that the former Philippine government had gone too far in trying to push its claims in the South China Sea. And Duterte felt that if he just shelve these claims, the Chinese would behave better, would treat the Filipinos more nicely. Unfortunately that hasn't happened. There has been an enormous amount of pledged aid investment from China but none of it has shown up. And Chinese ships continue to harass Filipino vessels throughout the South China Sea. The Chinese continue to militarize the recent islands that they occupy. And over the last year or so we've seen a return of this massive clam digging that's just devastating Filipino fishing grounds.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Thanks so much.

  • Greg Poling:

    Thank you.

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