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An Environmental Protection Area in the South China Sea? Not Likely

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Lost amid the recent cacophony of nationalist rhetoric regarding the disputes in the South China Sea have been calls for the claimants to agree to set aside part of the area for environmental preservation. This suggestion is both idealistic and unrealistic.

Few would deny the exponentially increasing environmental damage and its effects around the world, particularly to threatened island and near shore marine ecosystems. Humankind must learn to live within its environmental means. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that we will not do so – at least not in time to prevent more environmental disasters. The reasons are deep and intrinsic to collective human nature; they find expression in decisions regarding particular options to preserve the environment. The proposals for environmental protection in the disputed Spratlys — while laudable — are a good example of why such cooperative environmental management is so difficult to actualize.

It would be difficult to argue directly against saving the Spratly ecosystem — or what’s left of it. The South China Sea is at the crossroads of the most biologically diverse region on earth, the Indo-Pacific. Its islets and reefs harbor various flora and fauna – coral, mollusks, fish, seabirds, and turtles, including some rare and endangered species. Moreover, some scientists hypothesize that tuna, mackerel, scads, and coral reef fish stocks around the region are replenished from the Spratly area. If so, these spawning grounds would be particularly important for the coastal populations of adult fish, which are declining. This is why some suggest that these atolls, banks, and reefs are a genetic savings bank where commercially important fish and invertebrates (as capital) supply a constant flow of larvae (as interest) to areas of depletion.

Marine biologist John McManus first introduced the genetic savings bank metaphor and proposed turning the area into an international marine reserve with “a truce to........

© The Diplomat