The resource-rich South China Sea serves as a source of fishing and mining for Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. These countries are entitled to extract resources up to 200 nautical miles from their coast in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). With the exception of China, most countries respect this law. The People’s Republic claims historical rights to the entire territory of the South China Sea as per the “nine-dash line.”
China and the Philippines have skirmished over the Philippines’ EEZ since 2013. In July 2016, the Philippines brought its case to the arbitration tribunal at The Hague. The tribunal ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historical rights in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, China continues to build artificial islands for military bases in the region.
Every year, $5.3 trillion of trade pass through the South China Sea, constituting roughly one-third of global maritime trade. Additionally, the sea accounts for 12 percent of the global fish supply. The region is also rich in natural gas and oil, making it very strategic for China to control.
However, China’s involvement in the shoal has caused immense environmental devastation. The Hague’s arbitral tribunal found that China has caused severe harm to the coral reef environment in the Philippines’ EEZ by constructing artificial islands and clam hunting, violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Lu Kang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, assured in June 2015 that China’s buildup in the South China Sea would not “cause damage to the marine ecological system and environment in the South China Sea.” Yet, China’s island-building and clam hunting have damaged 55 square kilometers and 104 square kilometers of coral reef respectively.
Depleted fishing resources and coral reef damage have harmed Filipino fishermen’s livelihood. Fisheries in the South China Sea are very productive and are home to one of the most immense and biodiverse coral reef systems in the world. However, due to overexploitation, it is now under threat.
Fishermen in the Philippines also face pushback from Chinese coastguards who are known to raid the catches of Filipino fishermen, trading the best fish for cigarettes and instant noodles. However, the fishermen are hesitant to complain as this treatment is an improvement from a couple of years ago when the coastguards used to blast them with water cannons.
While Chinese intrusion in the region is taking its toll on the environment and the livelihood of Filipino fishermen, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has not shown any resistance to Chinese development in the country’s EEZ, stating he “will not impose anything on China.”
The construction of Chinese military bases in the South China Sea is almost complete. With China boasting one of the largest military forces in the world, the Duterte administration knows that war is not an option. At the moment, the Philippines is seeking stability in the region more than control.
In return for not interfering with Chinese expansion in the Philippines’ EEZ, China has promised to inject billions of dollars of loans and investment into the country. However, according to Leonardo Cuarsma, the leader of a fishermen organization in Masinloc, Zambales, Chinese investment will not compensate for dwindling fishing opportunities. If the Philippines relinquishes their EEZ to China, they would lose 40 percent of the country’s fishing grounds, devastating the income of Filipino fishermen.
While Duterte has stated that China is now allowing Filipinos to fish in some areas, such as the Scarborough Shoal, many believe, as legal Filipino territory, the people of the Philippines should be entitled to control their own EEZ.