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Quo Vadis

THE SOUTH CHINA SEA, as we know, is of tremendous economic and geostrategic importance: it is where a quarter of international trade goes through and where more than half of the world’s oil tankers and merchant ships pass every year. The South China Sea is part of an area that has long been known to be the “greatest concentration of marine life on the planet,” where the highest concentration of this biodiversity is in the Philippines.

Located in the Spratlys are the breeding grounds of fish and other marine life that give food and sustenance to the people of Southeast Asia over centuries. Traditional fishermen and their families have lived throughout these years relying on their fish catch from these waters.

Based on the 2016 Arbitral Award, we know that this rich biodiverse region was mercilessly destroyed by China through its illegal reclamation and artificial-island building in the Spratlys. Beginning in 2013, Chinese dredgers pulverized the coral reefs in the Spratlys and used these dead coral reefs and other sediments to create dry land. Given the wanton destruction of these fish homes in the Spratlys, scientists are now warning that this has accelerated one of the world’s worst fisheries collapse that may lead into mass starvation in the region.

John McManus, a world-renowned marine scientist, ominously warned: “What we’re looking at [in the South China Sea] is potentially one of the world’s worst fisheries collapses ever… We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of species that will collapse, and they could collapse relatively quickly, one after another.”

At this point, what can we do?

It seems obvious that we should protect and rebuild the remaining marine life in the South China Sea. The suggestion of Justice Antonio Carpio and other marine biologists to immediately declare the Spratlys as a “Marine Protected Area” is well-taken.

If countries bordering the South China Sea agree to declare the Spratlys a “Marine Protected Area,” this will give the marine life in that area some “breathing space” to heal. We therefore urge our countrymen, the Philippine Government and our ASEAN neighbors to help us in this endeavor. This also means that we should push back on any destructive reclamation and militarization activities in the Spratlys. If these are not done, Southeast Asia will suffer one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history that will permanently deprive us of our food and livelihood.

Equally important is to demand accountability from the main perpetrator of the environmental destruction in the South China Sea — China. As cited in the Arbitral Award: “The overall damage to the coral reefs within the Greater Spratly Islands covers at least 124 km2, of which the [People’s Republic of China] is responsible for 99%.”

If we do not demand accountability, we embolden rogue countries like China to commit the same malevolent acts in the future, including China’s planned reclamation of Scarborough Shoal — another rich traditional fishing ground of Filipinos, the Vietnamese, and even the Chinese. It is imperative that we exert all efforts to prevent China from committing another disastrous crime by reclaiming Scarborough Shoal.

The protection of our environment is a duty not only of governments, but every citizen of this planet. Due to the interconnection of natural ecosystems, an environmental disaster in one area inevitably spills over to other parts of the globe. This is especially true in the rich biodiverse region of the South China Sea.

Even the Philippine Constitution provides that every Filipino, as part of the Philippine State, shall protect the nation’s marine wealth.

For our part, on March 13, 2019, former Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio Morales and I — with Justice Antonio Carpio as our counsel — submitted a Communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to show that Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and former Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua, among others, committed Crimes Against Humanity by, among others, 1.) illegally blockading the traditional fishing grounds like the waters around Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys, and, 2.) causing the near permanent destruction of the marine environment of the South China Sea.

We consider this private sector initiative as our contribution to what should be a global effort to protect the South China Sea and to demand accountability from China.

We are delighted to know that there are now non-governmental organizations and individuals who have made the protection of the South China Sea as their advocacy. We are also heartened to know that, as of now, more than 98,000 individuals have signed an online statement of support for our ICC Case.

We should continue to explore ways that complement our efforts to protect the South China Sea and demand accountability from China.

The countries bordering the South China Sea are victims of China’s wanton environmental destruction in the Spratlys. Governments and citizens of these countries can file cases before their own courts especially against Chinese state-owned enterprises such as China Communications Construction Company which operate in their respective territories and which are linked to the illegal reclamation and island-building in the Spratlys.

For the Philippines alone, the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute conservatively estimated that we are losing at least $662 million annually from our damaged reef ecosystems due to China’s reclamation activities and illegal fishing operations. This sums up to $4.634 billion since the start of 2014 (around the time China started dredging) until this year. This money can be used to save our fish and rehabilitate the marine ecosystem destroyed by China in our waters.

The countries bordering the South China Sea have the right to seize assets and properties owned by Chinese State in their territory as compensation for the crimes committed by the Chinese State against their people.

We should not allow China to commit the perfect crime: to let China be simply because it is a superpower. To allow a superpower to commit abuses is to magnify such abuses because the superpower realizes that, with its resources and influence, it has no constraints in the world.

If we do not speak out against these abuses, then not only is China to blame but also ourselves. By speaking out against abuses, we show the world that we are enlightened humans who remain guided by morals and reason and not by the law of the jungle.


Ambassador Albert F.  Del Rosario is the Chair of the ADR Stratbase Institute.

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