NEW YORK – It sounds like a schlocky 1950s horror flick: a war across the Asia-Pacific triggered by a horde of giant clams. Unfortunately, this is not “Roger Corman Presents.” It’s the worst possible outcome of an actual crisis playing out in the South China Sea.
The giant clams in question aren’t out to conquer the world; in fact, many of them are long dead. Rather, the problem stems from their shells, which can be worth a fortune in China, where they are used to make jewelry and statues.
This bounty has led to fleets of Chinese fishermen from the island province of Hainan taking the clams and their shells illegally from contested waters. It would be bad enough in itself, but the method used to extract them involves shredding vast coral reefs that were millennia in the making, are vital to fisheries and tourism, and are already suffering from climate change and all types of “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing ” — a global industry that brings in an estimated $15 billion to $36 billion a year
Starting in the early 2010s, Chinese clam harvesters set across the South China Sea in packs of small fishing boats, tended by larger trawlers acting as mother ships. They would travel far beyond China’s territorial waters and into those either under dispute or clearly belonging to its neighbors.
When the fleets find a shallow-water reef, fishermen hop out of the smaller boats and begin dragging the hardened-brass propellers of their outboard motors back and forth across the reef until the clam shells are exposed. This is no small feat — the shells can be up to 1.2 meters wide and weigh more than 180 kg — but it pays off: Each shell brings in tens of thousands of dollars on the Hainan market. (If the clam inside is living, it’s either made into the crew’s next meal or just dumped over the side.) When intricately carved into sculptures, some have reportedly fetched as much as $1 million.
More than 10,100 hectares of coral reef were damaged in this way, according to John McManus of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. McManus’s findings were among the evidence considered by the international tribunal that in 2016 ruled China had violated the Philippines’ territorial rights through illegal fishing and the construction through landfill of half a dozen “artificial features” — human-made islands — by the Chinese military.
While this was a serious slap in the face to Beijing, it didn’t stop Chinese fishing armadas from entering disputed waters, including areas around the Paracel and Spratly Island chains, Scarborough Shoal and other physical features over which many of the South China Sea nations have competing claims. Most of these claims are stronger than Beijing’s — Scarborough Shoal, for example, sits more than 2,575 km from the Chinese mainland but just 500 km from the Philippines.
What did change, according to researchers — at least temporarily — is that giant-clam harvesting petered out entirely. There are a few theories on why, ranging from the bad press over the tribunal finding to a larger corruption crackdown within the Chinese Communist Party to the possibility that the clamshell market might simply have been glutted at the time.
Unfortunately, whatever the reason, the destructive fleets returned late last year, now with high-pressure hoses that allow extraction from reefs further below the surface than was possible with the old outboard-motor method. Aerial images show that this technique may be even worse for the ecosystem, as it throws off vast clouds of sediment that impact affect fish breeding and survival.
So what does all this have to do with a potential war? Chinese fishing fleets are often just the tip of the spear for Beijing’s broader aggressions. Increasingly, they are accompanied by armed vessels of China’s Coast Guard or seaborne militias, which push out fishermen from neighboring states, sometimes taking the crews captive, and dissuade foreign navies from interfering.
The next move is often for the Chinese military to dredge the shoals and build military bases above water, some with air strips. “The clam harvesting fits into a broader Chinese strategy to establish control of the sea, the seabed and the airspace above it,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s quite a coincidence: Wherever a new island was built, the clam fleet showed up first.”
In a typical example, a clam-fishing operation on Bombay Reef in the Paracels (which is claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam as well as China) coincided with the construction last year of a so-called Ocean E-Station — a physical platform rising from the sea bottom — with a radar station and 120 square meters of solar panels, according to a photo analysis by Poling’s team at CSIS. What’s beneath those panels is a mystery, but given the proximity to major shipping lanes, it’s a safe bet that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is involved. (It has built larger versions of such structures in the Spratlys.)
While the created islands themselves are worrying enough, they are just one part of a broader effort by Beijing to secure all the waters, and the airspace above them, within the so-called nine-dash line, a decades-old demarcation that sets out claims from Taiwan in the north to the southern tip of Vietnam and coast of Borneo in the south.
Roughly a quarter of global trade passes through those waters. An estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and vast quantities of natural gas lie below the sea bottom. (For a sense of how greatly Beijing covets this energy bounty, read Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s novel “Ghost Fleet,” a gripping and military sophisticated depiction of how a war between the U.S. and the People’s Republic might play out.)
So, without risking World War III, how can anyone push out the reef poachers? “The same way you deal with the disputes in South China Sea broadly,” Poling told me. “Beijing has to be convinced that cost of the behavior outweighs the benefits.” He suggested using international forums such as the United Nations. Yes, China can veto any resolution at the Security Council, but the idea is to inflict Beijing with “the reputational cost of being seen as an outlaw” that, among other things, could make other countries less willing to take part in its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure development project.
Then there is the possibility of the nations bordering the South China Sea all working in concert on conflict resolution and conservation. A good start would be for the Philippines itself to take a leading role. So far, President Rodrigo Duterte has been reluctant to press the advantage over China given him by the international tribunal, perhaps worried it would imperil trade and development deals with Beijing. He and other leaders in the area need to understand that this isn’t just about protecting some massive shellfish: It’s about saving the entire ecosystem of waters that provide about 12 percent of the global fish catch. And while the clam shells turn a tidy profit, the potential harvest of tourist dollars absolutely dwarfs it. Finally, poaching always brings with it a host of other criminality, like smuggling of drugs and weapons; human trafficking; piracy; and hostage-taking.
The conventional wisdom is that China, the regional hegemon, would have no interest in negotiating a multilateral treaty on clam fishing or anything else. But McManus, who has spent time on the reefs and met repeatedly with Chinese environmental officials and scientists, has a different take. “That’s sheer nonsense,” he told me. “China has signed on to at least 17 international agreements on land. They also have a fisheries agreement with Vietnam on Gulf of Tonkin, and are in all sorts of international fishery agreements.”
And the truth is that China is only the biggest malefactor; the other countries on the sea constantly accuse each other of territorial violations as well. For example, things got very heated in May when two Vietnamese Coast Guard ships allegedly rammed an Indonesian Navy vessel that had apprehended Vietnamese fishing boats in disputed waters.
Indonesia responded in its usual manner: Floating dozens of captured Vietnamese fishing boats into a harbor and blowing them up. These public spectacles, the modern equivalent of a hanging outside Newgate Prison in a Dickens novel, may satisfy the Indonesians’ desire for revenge, but they haven’t put a dent into poaching across the disputed waters.
Protecting the fisheries will take environmental awareness, multilateral cooperation, recognition that the reefs are worth more alive than dead and, above all, an understanding that war may be just one giant clam away.
Tobin Harshaw writes on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion.