A Philippine nationalist youth group is accusing the government of China of poisoning large swathes of the South China Sea to prevent Philippine and other foreign fishermen from benefiting from the waters’ resources, in an attempt to cement its control over the region.
The Kalayaan Atin Ito (KAI) Movement — a group which describes its objective as gathering “10,000 volunteers to join us in a peaceful protest against China’s aggressive and unlawful taking over of reefs to build artificial islands with military installations in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea]” — alleges that it has found evidence of Chinese fishing vessels dumping chemicals into the waters near the Spratly Islands to hurt the fishing industry on Palawan, the uncontested Philippine island closest to the disputed waters.
“When we were there last year, the civilian residents confirmed to us that Chisese [sic] vessels are regularly releasing chemicals to destroy the corals and marine species,” the group stated in a Facebook post on its page.
“China is aggressively removing economic activities of the civilian community at the Kalayaan Island Group [Spratly Islands] to drive away civilians and isolate the Islands. Once all civilians are gone, Chinese military activities to occupy the islands will be easier,” the group alleges, posting images it claims are dead fish washing ashore on the islands.
Neither the Philippine government nor that of China has addressed the accusation, and it is the first of its kind to be made on a public, international scale. Manila has, however, accused China of severe environmental damage in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which it claims entirely for Beijing. In July 2015, Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio issued a statement accusing China of destroying seventeen reefs near the Spratly Islands in its construction of artificial islands for military facilities there.
“China occupies seven reefs in the Spratlys. It is reclaiming on all seven reefs. Although it occupies seven reefs, it is using filling materials from 10 other reefs so China has actually destroyed 17 reefs in total,” Carpio alleged. If true, the destruction in the region would be on an unprecedented scale. Environmentalist groups have been largely silent regarding China’s “reclamation” of the South China Sea from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
A group of about 50 KAI protesters landed on Pagasa Island in the Spratly chain in December, as a move to assert Filipino sovereignty over the region. At the time, the group said they did not encounter any Chinese resistance, and Manila offered any necessary security support for the group to peacefully land and take photographs on the island. President Benigno Aquino issued a statement saying the government “recognizes the patriotism of these youth.”
While this is the first accusation of the Chinese government deliberately poisoning foreign waters, protests over waves of dead fish coming to shore began this week in Vietnam. About 900 miles away from the Spratly Island chain, in Ha Tinh province, Vietnam, residents are accusing the Taiwanese corporation Formosa of dumping toxic chemicals into local waters and destroying the fish industry. Groups of fishmongers waved a protest holding signs reading “Formosa out of Vietnam” and “The Sea Dies, We Die” earlier this week.
The Vietnamese government, which is also involved in a dispute with China over South China Sea territory, has vowed to investigate the incident, while the Formosa Plastics corporation has issued a statement reading “we are deeply shocked and sorry.” There is no evidence the incidents are related.
While the Chinese have not previously been accused of killing fish directly in the region, there are been numerous incidents of Chinese vessels attacking Vietnamese, Philippine, and Indonesian vessels in fishing areas. Chinese ships have sunk at least two Vietnamese fishing vessels in the last two years that were fishing in internationally-recognized Vietnamese waters. Earlier this year, the Chinese Coast Guard rammed a boat in Indonesian waters; Indonesia protested the presence of the Coast Guard in their exclusive territory.