Taiwan is one of seven nations laying claims of one kind or another to islands in the South China Sea. “Islands” is hardly the correct term — they are in reality sand-banks, atolls, shallows and coral reefs, but they have many natural resources and lay astride major shipping lanes. China has claimed that they all lie within its territorial waters.
These islets are in two groups, the Paracels (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) to the north and the Spratlys (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) to the south. Taiwan’s interest is largely in the Paracels, as is that of the Philippines, with Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia focusing on the southern region.
But this book isn’t primarily political in its focus. Rather, it’s concerned with marine degradation in the whole region as observed by the author from his experiences on a Vietnamese fishing boat, or “cruising yawl” to use a phrase mariners of Joseph Conrad’s generation would have been familiar with.
This important book appears just as 100 nations agreed at the Brest Summit to take action to curb illegal fishing and the plastic pollution of the world’s oceans.
Shao Kwang-Tsao (邵廣昭), a retired researcher at Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Research Center, has studied the “coral cathedrals” beneath the Spratleys, prompting former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to propose a “Spratley Initiative,” which would have recognized the entire area as an environmental protection zone.
James Borton’s approach is at times colloquial as well as being invariably well-informed, leading him to declare in a Hanoi bar that his researches had led him to an excessive thirst.
The South China Sea is 1.4 million square miles in area and, according to the author, contains a greater range of marine bio-diversity than almost any comparable ocean on the planet.
As for China, it’s estimated that its annual fish catch is 20 percent of the world’s total, and is responsible for a third of the world’s plastic pollution. Relations between Vietnam and China go back 2,000 years, so the current conflict over the South China Sea’s islands is in a way paradoxical. Xi Jinping (習近平) has referred to Sino-Vietnamese relations as a “special friendship between comrades and brothers.”
Over 300 million people live on the South China Sea’s periphery and are used to enjoying its resources. China’s so-called “nine dash line” marks its claim to sovereignty over almost all this contested area, but fish catches are dwindling for everyone — according to some estimates by 70 percent over the past 20 years.
Almost 55 percent of the world’s fishing vessels, many of them small, operate in the South China Sea. Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝), a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica, believes in a shared and sustainable future for the islands, embracing China’s much-vaunted concept of an “ecological civilization.” Even so, few deny China’s current “hard-power maritime expansionism” with its ramming of foreign fishing boats, harassing of oil exploration surveys and building of military outposts on reclaimed land.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” declared former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But the islands’ oil and gas reserves make them highly desirable conquests. Similar conflicts are imminent, incidentally, in the Arctic region.
Meanwhile, few would have predicted the victory of the Philippines in the unanimous arbitration of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over the South China Sea’s Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) in 2016.
Dispatches from the South China Sea is a very thoroughly researched book, with many more areas of expertise than it’s possible to indicate here, stretching from whales and dolphins to tuna and coral reefs. Some 160 square kilometers of reefs have been destroyed through base-building and clam hunting and these reefs, some of the most spectacular in the world, can never now be replaced.
Furthermore, Borton writes that many species of reef fish are non-migratory, and the destruction of their reef habitats often spells their extinction.
The Hague arbitration specifically designated Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), administrated by Taiwan, as a “rock” and hence not available for consideration as part of China’s continental shelf. Last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) proposed the establishment of an international scientific research station on the site. Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) earlier called on its other claimant nations to combine and share resources there. Rising sea levels nevertheless threaten the site’s very existence. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s approach gets high praise throughout this book.
Taiwan, Borton argues, is a highly responsible player in the South China Sea game. He comes to the surprising conclusion that “Taiwan’s complex cross-strait relationship with Mainland China under-scores that sovereignty and security form the core of their relationship. Despite missed opportunities, missteps and suspicions of bad faith, there is a peaceful coexistence marked by negotiation and rapprochement.”
In an Appendix Borton describes a visit to the Cham Islands, close to the coast of Vietnam. They pose, he says, an enviable example of the potential of all these South China Sea islands to become tourist attractions, and hence centers for international cooperation and marine research. He concludes the book by stating that even half a degree of ocean warming will spell disaster for many already threatened coral systems.
A sunlit seascape, a profusion of marine life, surrounding countries devoted to its resources — this is a grand and poetic vision. That it is marred by political rivalry is one of the tragedies of the age.
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