WASHINGTON — China has resumed illegal harvesting in disputed areas of the South China Sea, returning to a strategy of applying economic and military muscle in tandem to control the region, a report released Monday detailed.
At issue are Chinese clam harvesting fleets, which destroy “vast swaths of coral reef to extract endangered giant clams, according to the report, compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“The clam shells are transported back to Hainan Province where they fetch thousands of dollars each in a thriving market for jewelry and statuary,” the report said. It said satellite imager show these fleets returned in force at the end of 2018 and operating frequently at Scarborough Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef — lucrative fishing areas claimed by other nations.
From 2012 to 2015, Chinese clam harvesters “severely damaged or destroyed at least 28 reefs across the South China Sea,” the CSIS report said. The pause in the last few years coincided with the burst of Chinese militarization of the contested island, as well as created man-made outposts from other reefs it destroyed, CSIS said.
As of 2016, China damaged at least 25,000 acres of shallow reef surfaces as a result of Chinese clam extraction and at least another 15,000 acres damaged by dredging and landfill activities to create man-made outposts.
“It is clear that Chinese authorities are aware of and condoning these environmentally destructive practices,” CSIS said, noting that the China Coast Guard maintains a constant presence in the waters around the contested islands.
On Sunday, the USS Preble, a destroyer, sailed 12 nautical miles off Scarborough Reef as part of the Pentagon’s ongoing freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) campaign in the region.
“USS Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Commander Clay Doss, a spokesperson for the Seventh Fleet, said in a media statement.
It was the second time the USS Preble has conducted a FONOP this month. Earlier, it was joined by the USS Chung-Hoon and traveled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs.
“I must stress once again that the U.S. warship’s relevant actions have violated China’s sovereignty and undermined the peace, security and good order in the relevant sea areas. China is firmly opposed to this,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing Monday, according to Reuters.
The USS Preble FONOP came as India and Singapore held a joint naval drill in the same vicinity, according to news reports. That drill is to last for four days and comes 10 days after India joined the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines in a multi-national FONOP in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon has sent ships through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait each month of this year, a first. It has also sent more ships through waters that China claims as its own to start this year than any time in the past. The U.S also has increased air sorties in those regions.