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article imageOp-Ed: China wrecking environmental havoc in Southeast Asia

By Kenneth Szabo     Sep 29, 2015 in Environment
The South China Sea has often become a focal point for geopolitical conflict due to its shared importance to some of the world's most powerful nations.
Recently, however, there has been substantial outcry over the environmental implications of these conflicts, an aspect usually considered of secondary importance but yet carries serious consequences.
At the center of the South China Sea controversies are the Spratly Islands, an archipelago that nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and China all claim varying levels of ownership over. However, China has been the most insistent claimant, having added thousands of hectares to these islands, also known as China’s “great wall of sand,” to the detriment of the local wildlife and surrounding ecosystems. Specifically, Beijing’s land reclamation efforts have severed the ecological connection between the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea, threatening the fish-stock and other marine resources upon which approximately 300 million people are dependent for their livelihoods. Since China's projects began, fish reserves have decreased by 16 percent and a number of endangered species have become more dramatically threatened.
The South China Sea boasts a greater marine biodiversity than any other body of water in the world. Forty percent of the world’s tuna is produced from the South China Sea and its fishing industry is worth millions. Marine biologists continue to discover new species of sea-life in its waters, notably a new form of plankton near the Spratly Islands. But this abundance is being put at risk, with 70 percent of the South China Sea’s coral reefs being rated as in poor or worsening condition according to a report in The Diplomat. If China does nothing to curb these worrying trends, it can only lead to greater ecological and economic displacement.
While Beijing’s reclamation actions violate several international conventions including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, its behavior has also increasingly become a threat to the international community. Due to the South China Sea’s status as a vital maritime trade route with hundreds of tankers passing through its waters on a daily basis, among them roughly 200 oil tankers, surrounding nations are becoming increasingly nervous about the potential of China to control the shipping routes.
But for China, these flagrant violations are nothing out of the ordinary as the country’s dubious environmental practices have slowly been creeping over into Southeast Asian nations. With its reputation for competitive economic growth, China is increasingly hungry for resources, most notably bauxite, an ore used to produce aluminum. With China responsible for providing 55 percent of the world’s aluminum, their need for bauxite is desperate, and they have shown little regard to the toll their aggressive acquisition of the ore has taken on the region. When Indonesia passed a law ending its bauxite exports to China in 2014, Beijing was forced to turn to neighboring Malaysia to meet its uncontrollable demand. To paint a picture of the magnitude of this new relationship, in 2014 Malaysia shipped 1.27 million tons of bauxite ore to China, but from January to July this year, Malaysia has already exported 10.2 million tons of the raw material, throwing out the window any forecasts that the country’s bauxite exports to China would equal a mere 10 million tons for 2015.
Unfortunately, the Malaysian government has been slow to enforce any regulations regarding the industry, and the high demand for bauxite ore has made illegal mining attractive and lucrative despite the serious risks. Illegal mine operators are said to be making up to RM66 million, or approximately $15 million a month from bauxite exports, leading to increasingly dangerous and polluting activities in Malaysia. Bauxite contains highly radioactive uranium, high levels of mercury, arsenic, beryllium and other toxic substances that can lead to cancer and illness if they are consumed or enter the lungs. Due to failure to adopt health and safety procedures and environment regulations, illegal mining in Malaysia is leading to mass pollution of the local water sources, and effectively the maritime life that resides within them. Experts reporting to the Pahang Public Amenities and Environment Committee confirmed that, “prolonged exposure to the polluted water and the red dust from bauxite mining can increase the risk of developing cancer.”
On a national level, Malaysian officials are already seeking to strengthen regulations on bauxite mining. Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment confirmed that, "all operating license conditions need to be tightened and the old laws be reviewed so that we can tighten control and increase the penalties on errant bauxite mining operators”, after his visit to a mining site. Similarly, the Pahang government, where much of the unregulated bauxite mining is taking place, has announced the introduction of special sacks for the transportation of bauxite to curb the spread of suffocating ‘red dust’ currently plaguing Malaysia’s public roads.
Policy change, while an important step in protecting the environment in the Southeast Asia region, does not address the heart of the problem: China. It is understandable that China’s fellow Southeast Asian nations don’t want to anger their number one trade partner, but the environmental degradation of these countries and the South China Sea due to China’s aggressive policies should most certainly be an international concern and dealt with accordingly. Whether the focus be on ensuring adequate environmental provisions within the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, regional initiatives on behalf of the ASEAN member states to treat environmental crimes as transnational crimes, or on a grander scale in finding a solution to the environmental problem at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, world leaders need to do more to ensure that Southeast Asia’s biodiversity and environment are protected.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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