Much has been written and discussed over competing territorial claims by China and

ASEAN member countries Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, over the South China Sea. The Paracels, a group of islands and reefs, are occupied by China but they are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. They each also claim the Spratly Islands, which are located further south.  Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also lay claim to the waters nearby the Spratly.

Yet, it is only China which seems to be solidly occupying the reef islands.  It has reinforced its position by turning seven reefs into island posts, building runways and, to the world’s great alarm, installed radars and weapon systems. Satellite picture shows personnel occupying and guarding those islands. The question is, why has the South China Sea become such a bone of contention?

The South China Sea is seen to contain rich fishing grounds and holds a potential wealth of oil and gas reserves, as well as mineral deposits.  According to a 2013 report by the US Energy Information Administration, 11 million barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be under the seabed, waiting to be exploited.

But one aspect that is often overlooked is the condition of the sea itself, the need for its conservation and preservation, if it is ever to provide the much sought-after resources. It is universally acknowledged that there is a woeful lack of attention towards overall marine life and environment. Hence our selection of two timely articles on another facet of the South China Sea.

Every country in Southeast Asia claims to have intimate links to its waters, whether they be the Mekong River, the Strait of Malacca, or the South China Sea. Millions of Southeast Asians depend on the marine life for their livelihoods.  Not surprisingly, according to United Nations data, the region accounts for a quarter of the world’s fish production. Environmentally, the coral reefs and mangroves that line the region’s coastline are the last line of defense against the rising sea and lashing storms.

Sustainability problems looming over Southeast Asia’s seas and rivers, according to the first article of this week’s Spotlight article, ‘Conserving Southeast Asia’s Seas’ highlights the issues discussed at the US-ASEAN Conference on Marine Environmental Issues, which took place in Bangkok, Thailand, last week. Increasing demand for fish and overexploited fisheries have led to questions about the long-term viability of the fish supply around the seas surrounding Southeast Asia. As frequently reported, plastic and other forms of pollution, threats to coral reefs and rapid coastal development also add to the stress on the waters around ASEAN.

Moreover, according to Gideon Lasco, a licensed physician, medical anthropologist, writer and environmental advocate from the Philippines, writing in ‘Rediscover our Maritime Consciousness’ for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Southeast Asians ‘seems to have lost our maritime consciousness’.

Much like Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo who wants to see his country’s waters as something that unites, rather than separates, his people who live on thousands of islands, Lasco bemoans his compatriots’ lack of swimming skills and clogged waterways. What ever happened to the spirit bequeathed by the intrepid seafarers of old to their modern descendants in the Philippines and Indonesia?

We spotlight on the call for increased awareness on the need to conserve and sustain our water resources, most especially our oceans.