Beijing Calls South China Sea Island Reclamation a ‘Green Project’

BY BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN /  MAY 26, 2016 / ForeignPolicy.com

BEIJING, China — Sand, cement, and Chinese military facilities now sit on top of some of the South China Sea’s once-thriving reefs; China has built over half a dozen new artificial islands in a bid to bolster its territorial claims in the hotly disputed region. Such reclamation devastates the local marine habitat. But according to China, these activities do not cause significant ecological damage. Beijing increasingly insists that the island-sized piles of sand and concrete now burying the highly biodiverse coral reefs are, in fact, environmentally friendly.

“It’s a green project,” claimed Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deputy Director-General Wang Xining in a May 10 meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. All land reclamation and construction activity in the region “is carefully designed, carefully built, [to] try to minimize ecological effect,” Wang told a group of journalists visiting Beijing on a May reporting trip organized through the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Wang’s comments reflect an official position that has been percolating for some time within the Chinese establishment. In March 2015, the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences convened the “South China Sea Artificial Island Ecological Security and Sustainable Development Seminar.” At the event, an emphasis on “national maritime power” accompanied discussion of “blue eco-building” on the artificial islands, suggesting that geopolitics might be prevailing over scientific considerations. In June 2015, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), the agency tasked with monitoring the country’s maritime environmental policies, picked up on this line of reasoning. In a statement titled “Spratly Reef Expansion Project Will Not Cause Damage to the Marine Environment,” posted to its website on June 18, 2015, SOA gave its stamp of approval to the island building, calling it a “green project.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently begun to emphasize that phrase. “China’s activities on the Nansha Islands strictly follow the principle of conducting green project[s] and building ecological islands and reefs,”remarked Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei during a May 6 press briefing, using the Chinese term for the Spratly Islands. “The impact on the ecological system of coral reefs is limited.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, a busy waterway through which over $5 trillion in trade passes every year. Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines hold competing claims over the resource-rich sea. Over the past three years, Chinese dredgers have worked quickly to pull sediment from the ocean floor surrounding reef and atolls in the Spratly Islands, located more than 500 miles south of the Chinese coast. While other claimants in the South China Sea have also built up features on islands or reefs in the South China Sea, China’s reclamation activities far outpace those of other countries. U.S. officials estimate that China has created more than 3,200 acres in the Spratlys alone. China has also installed military hardware on the artificial islands, including airstrips, radar, port facilities, multi-story buildings, surface-to-air missiles, and an anti-ship cruise missile. Read more…

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