By Eliza King
As China continues to expand into a superpower large enough to one day rival the United States, the support and cooperation of Southeast Asian countries is imperative. Since 2000 China’s trade with the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries rose from $32 billion to $350 billion in 2014, with estimates for 2015 reaching as high as $500 billion. Despite Southeast Asia’s economic growth being boosted by Chinese investment, partner countries are now starting to feel the consequences of befriending their power-hungry neighbor. Not only is China being accused of ecocide by a community of international scientists, but the geopolitics of large scale pollution tell us how vast the imbalance of power has become in the region.
Satellite images show a number of artificial islands built by China amongst the Spratly islands of the South China Sea. What was once only 4 km2 of land above sea level created by China, has now transformed to 12.82 km2 despite several countries having a claim over this area. The methods used for expansion, particularly excavation by dredging sand, have caused irreversible damage to aquatic ecosystems. The Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that Chinese land reclamation has already destroyed 300 acres of coral reef and caused an annual loss worth $100 million. Coral reefs can stop up to 90% of wave strength – a crucial safety factor in typhoon-prone regions with highly populated coastal towns. These reefs are also essential for food security because the spawn produced there gets carried through currents towards coasts, allowing the replenishment of fish, an already fragile resource due to avid overfishing. The Chinese government has made no official statement admitting the damage caused by their land reclamation, even when Chinese scientists predicted an 80% decline of sensitive coral in the South China Sea and danger of extinction for the remaining 20%.
China’s past three decades of high-speed growth, fueled by a fifth of the world’s population, has caused the country to fall far behind in the Environmental Performance Index. At the 118th position, air quality, water resources and fisheries are the sectors that have suffered the most these last ten years. Wealth is costing the Chinese population its health; in some industrial zones eating an apple or drinking water can be dangerous. The soil is so contaminated that factories have to relocate and families are forced to flee their homes for their own safety. Much like the 2008 Olympics that evicted generations from ancient slum-like quarters, China’s thirst for expansion affects its population’s social and cultural well-being too. Anti-government movements have pollution at the forefront of their campaigns and the wealthier middle class is also growing weary of this national health hazard. Despite the Prime Minister addressing these issues in public, no drastic measures have been taken to improve the situation. There is an underlying fear that China’s bad habits in terms of ecology will rub off on its new Asian business partners.
The reactions to China’s hushed expansion are not what you would expect. Apart from the Philippines, which filed a lawsuit against China at the UN International Court of Arbitration in 2013, governments have been very slow to respond to these growing threats. Instead, civilians have taken it into their own hands: riots have taken place in Vietnam’ while Chinese projects were forced to close down in Myanmar. In July, a tidal wave of toxic coal waste struck North Vietnam after a typhoon caused the collapse of a coal mine. Vietnam’s booming coal industry is largely powered by Chinese demand and by Beijing’s promises of cheap finance in exchange for anthracite. The US based Waterkeeper Alliance has pointed out that coal waste water contains traces of heavy metals that can be highly toxic. Pumping this water out of disaster stricken areas and into vast bodies of water is as devastating to maritime ecosystems as China’s artificial islands.
Meanwhile, illegal bauxite mining in Malaysia is tinting waters red and poisoning them with traces of arsenic, lead, uranium and mercury, which can kill aquatic life. Due to lax standards, experts have confirmed there is radioactive contamination in tested water samples and insist that, “prolonged exposure to the polluted water and red dust from bauxite mining can increase the risk of developing cancer.” The rise in illegal mining of bauxite ore (a first step in the production of aluminum) comes after Indonesia banned exports of raw materials last year, leaving Malaysia as China’s main supplier with 1.27 million tonnes of bauxite in the first nine months of 2014, up 12 times from 2013. Even if legal bauxite mining is deemed safe and sustainable thanks to the heavy regulatory environment that usually accompanies it, Malaysia’s local governments and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry have thus far failed to put in place proper safety regulations and monitoring practices, focusing instead on short term gains that are being favored over long term environmental consequences.
If China’s business model influence didn’t seem bad enough for the environment, Reuters recently reported instances of labour trafficking across Southeast Asia. In Guangdong, the Chinese province nicknamed “The Workshop of the World,” workers are smuggled in by the truckload from Vietnam and other countries. These men are sometimes limited to compounds and given fake identification documents. Most illegal workers are paid half of what a Chinese blue collar worker earns, a percentage of which goes to the brokers who also charge employers a fee.
Southeast Asia’s governmental reluctance to voice frustration is without a doubt because China is their first economic partner by an overwhelming majority, with trade predicted to be worth $1 trillion by 2020. With such high-stakes it is not surprising that member countries of ASEAN agreed to be a part of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose funding will establish economic foundations and promote connectivity across Asia. However, by encouraging countries to develop ultrafast and cheap industries, China is essentially leading its Southeast Asian allies down a path towards environmental disaster and unethical working conditions. After an ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting that took place in early August in Putrajaya, Malaysia, it was agreed that the creation of the ASEAN Community (AC) would occur by the end of 2015. The AC would act as the highest form of regional cooperation and would hopefully give member countries the insight to step away from the Chinese model and develop their own economies with a conscience towards the environment and population.
Eliza King works for an independent Brisbane-based NGO specialising in human rights and development throughout the Asian region.