China’s neighbours have accused it of destroying an estimated 120 hectares of coral reef systems in the disputed Spratly Islands through land reclamation. EPA/Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The leaders of Southeast Asian nations recently took the extraordinary step of warning China that its island-building activities in the contested South China Sea “may undermine peace, security and stability” in the region.
That’s strong language from the usually reticent 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and shows just how high tempers are flaring over what has been called China’s “great wall of sand” in a strategically important area.
The commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, has described China’s island enhancement program as part of a “pattern of provocative actions” towards smaller South China Sea states.
But island-building in regions like the Spratly Islands plays well to China’s nationalistic domestic audience and also appears to be aimed at reinforcing China’s territorial and maritime claims in a potentially resource-rich area. Such activities could, however, have dire consequences for the region’s marine environment and vital fisheries.
Ensuring stability and maritime security in this area is crucial to Australian and global interests. An estimated 60% of Australian trade passes through the South China Sea, with US$5 trillion in trade overall flowing through the region.