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China Using Ecological Protection to Boost Claims in Disputed Waters

FILE - This file aerial view taken on July 27, 2012 shows part of the city of Sansha on the island of Yongxing, also known as Woody island in the disputed Paracel chain, which China now considers part of Hainan province.

China's public order to keep away from a rare, environmentally unique ocean sinkhole in the Paracel Islands signals a new effort to tighten its grip on a tract of water disputed with Vietnam and monitored by the United States.

The Chinese city of Sansha ordered on its website this month that tourism, fishing and unauthorized research teams avoid the 301-meter-deep (987-foot) Dragon Hole on a Beijing-held islet in the widely contested South China Sea. China is expected to protect the ecologically rare blue hole, the deepest feature of its kind in the world, rather than develop it.

China looking to solidify claims to the South China Sea

Protection of the hole may deter foreign criticism of China’s maritime expansion, such as reclamation work.

Andrew Yang, secretary general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan said the keep-out order also tells other governments China is digging into its maritime claims with more than landfill and coast guard vessels.

“I don’t consider environmental protection is the priority for Chinese concern,” he said. “However, I think sovereignty is certainly the top issue for Chinese interests. Therefore I think exclusion (of the blue hole) for the Chinese interests is very much related to the sovereignty issue.”

A spectacular hole

The Dragon Hole measures 130 meters wide at the top and 36 meters across at the bottom. A China Central Television video of the hole shows a diver swimming next to vertical underwater cliffs above a seabed of coral and groups of small tropical fish.

The government that claims 95 percent of the 3.5 million-square-km (1.4 million-square-mile), resource-laden ocean has come under fire for landfilling as much as 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares) of tiny islets, including in the Paracel archipelago. The blue hole is on the Paracel islet of Yongle.

Fabrizio Bozzato, an associate researcher specializing in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan, calls the blue hole protection a “showcase opportunity.”

“They’re being very destructive in other parts of the South China Sea with their piling of sand on atolls and rocks, and the number of fishing reef species in the South China Sea has decreased sharply because of China’s human activities, so the Chinese need to implement a public diplomacy initiative,” he said.

FILE - Chinese ship and helicopter are seen during a search and rescue exercise near Qilian Yu subgroup in the Paracel Islands, which is known in China as Xisha Islands, South China Sea, July 14, 2016.
FILE - Chinese ship and helicopter are seen during a search and rescue exercise near Qilian Yu subgroup in the Paracel Islands, which is known in China as Xisha Islands, South China Sea, July 14, 2016.

Ecological protection

The city’s order to keep out is meant to “help protect” the hole and a nearby coral reef ecosystem, Beijing’s official China Daily newspaper said. Blue holes are named for the water color and researchers are keen to study them.

Exclusive environmental protection work locks in China’s claim to the Paracels, said Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a U.S.-based think tank.

“From the Chinese perspective, that’s a way to show the other countries and show the world that it’s really ours, not because we took it by force from the Vietnamese but also because ‘hey we’re managing it,’” Sun said.

China's historical claims

Beijing has built up its claim to the Paracels since 1956 as it expands across the bigger sea to acquire seafood, gas, oil and territorial control.

That year, China took Woody Island, the largest of 130 tiny land features in the archipelago. Chinese authorities have allowed tourism in parts of the Paracels, which lie equidistant from China and Vietnam. They have been accused of letting some visitors poach endangered species. Some reports have said China has surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island.

The world arbitration court ruled in July against the historical basis China uses to claim most of the ocean.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines claim all or parts of the South China Sea. They fear China is looking for ways to keep asserting control over the sea despite the July verdict.

Vietnam especially may worry, as it has lost some of the Paracels to China. In 2014, the two sides also sparred over an oil rig that China put in the disputed waters. The United States values the sea for its shipping lanes and urges China to cooperate more with rival maritime claimants.