China is aware of need for sustainable practices, says Chinese expert
The industrial bases in coastal areas of China generate 60% of the vast country’s Gross Domestic Product. The country has a coastline of 18 000 km, and territorial waters of 27 000 sq km, which includes 5 400 islands. Therefore, marine issues and more specifically marine security is of the utmost importance to the Chinese, Prof Julia Xue of the Institute for the Law of the Sea at the Ocean University of China said in Stellenbosch on Monday (27 August 2012).
“In 2010 the Chinese marine economy was worth more than 465 billion Chinese Yuan (around R430 billion) and it is growing at an annual average of 20%,” she said.
Xue was speaking at a roundtable discussion about recent developments in Chinese governance of marine affairs hosted by the Faculty of Law at SU. She is a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).
According to Xue the Chinese have a comprehensive legal system governing maritime affairs and the country has a number of sustainability and environmental agreements with some of their neighbours.
However, China shares borders with 14 other countries and maritime borders are at times in very narrow waterways, such as the Gulf of Tonkin, where there is a constant possibility of tension with Vietnam, or the East China Sea, where disputes with Japan constantly flare up, and the Socotra Rock in the Yellow Sea , where there is conflict with South Korea.
There are also historic claims by both China and Japan over islands and rocks close to Taiwan. Last but not least, China has made a number of enemies by laying claim to most islands in the South China Sea, which has angered Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. These countries increasingly turn to the US to balance growing Chinese power in the region.
The potential for conflict in the contested waters of the South China Sea is exacerbated by the presence of natural resources, such as oil and gas, but also minerals in the seabed – and rich fishing grounds. There are over 1,6 million Chinese fishing boats trawling the contested and other waters. According to Xue, only 20% of these are large vessels; the rest are small trawling boats.
Despite its reputation of unsustainable fishing and exploration practices and claiming sovereignty over some of its neighbours, China has shown its commitment in to change by adopting legislation aiming at being more sustainable. It is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has established a National Project for the Development of Marine Affairs, which is tasked with managing maritime issues, and there are fishing agreements in place with amongst others Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
Xue added that there are some enduring challenges that still need to be addressed. China needs to manage contested jurisdictions, find a balance between economic development and environmental protection, manage the possibility of conflict in exploration areas and settle conflicting claims in different countries.
Some of the immediate actions that have to be taking include concrete actions dealing with resources and the environment to ensure sustainable practices.
Giving a China/Africa perspective, Dr Sven Grimm, Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at SU, said that there is often a misperception that the Chinese are in Africa as “donors who want to help the people of the continent”.
“However, Chinese business is not here to help, but to do business.”
He added that the mistake is often made to classify every business person under the umbrella term of “China”.
“The Chinese state owned enterprises operate quite differently to Chinese individuals,” he said.
According to Grimm, the Chinese government finds it difficult to keep track of where Chinese citizens have emigrated to.
“It is nearly impossible to obtain accurate figures on how many Chinese citizens are in a specific country.”
About the fear of Chinese “colonisation” and accusations of unsustainable and exploitative business practices, Grimm said that China will always be seen as problematic simply because of its size. – Article and photographs by STEPHANIE NIEUWOUDT