Wed, Feb 13, 2008 - Page 8 News List

President's Spratly idea fits bill for biodiversity

By Allen Chen 陳昭倫

PRESIDENT CHEN SHUI-BIAN (陳水扁) recently became the first Taiwanese president to set foot on the nation's southernmost islands, the Spratlys (南沙群島). On Taiping Island (太平島), Chen declared the innovative and long overdue "Spratly Initiative."

Chen is the first leader among the political entities around the South China Sea to declare that he wants to prioritize ecological preservation of the Spratlys over development. After years of heated argument over who has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, this approach is completely different from the usual talk of developing the islands. Chen's remarks are of the same level of importance as US President George W. Bush opening the world's biggest marine reserve in Hawaii last year.

It doesn't matter if China pressures other countries around the South China Sea to reject Chen's plan -- Taiwan's sovereignty over the Spratly Islands is now clear. The initiative also shows the countries in the region that Taiwan cannot be ignored in the code of conduct for the South China Sea.

The Spratly Initiative is very important for the protection of the coral reefs in the South China Sea. Coral reefs are a vital part of the ecology of this sea, and Taiwan owns the two most important reefs. The Pratas Islands (東沙環礁) are the northernmost coral reef in the South China Sea, and Taiping Island is one of the few inhabitable coral reef islands in the Spratlys. These two coral reef ecological systems support rich biological diversity.

Along with academics from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, 10 years ago I conducted research that proves that the Spratly Islands reefs are a crucial treasure trove for preserving biological diversity.

If the coral reefs of the Spratlys are not protected properly and die out, our research shows this will cause a crisis for every single one of the countries surrounding the South China Sea, home to over 100 million people who need the reefs for their fishing industry and as a source of protein. When we discovered this, we suggested that the countries jointly establish a marine reserve and make the area a sustainable protected area.

This year is the international year of the coral reef. Please go to http://www.reefcheck.org/petition/petition.php to sign the International Declaration of Reef Rights. Chen's Spratly Initiative could be regarded as support for the international year of the coral reef, and serve as an example for the countries around the South China Sea. For future action, I suggest the following steps:

First, Taiwan should pass its sovereignty over Taiping Island and Zhongzhou reef (中洲礁), also known as Ban Than reef, to an international marine reserve, and establish an institution to manage the protection of the ocean.

Second, the government should establish a maritime research station on Taiping Island.

Third, the government should establish a national South China Sea research group as part of the National Science Council.

Fourth, an international South China Sea study group should be established to further international academic exchange.

Fifth, Taiwan should ask all the countries around the South China Sea to carry out the research and work needed for establishing an internationally managed South China Sea marine reserve.

If Taiwan can push for the adoption of the fifth recommendation, the fundamental spirit of the Spratly Initiative could become true: replacing the fight over sovereignty with a united pursuit of environmental protection, and replacing the plunder of the islands' natural resources with efforts to sustain their ecology.

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