Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
The picturesque city of Sansha in South China's Hainan Province is simultaneously the country's largest prefecture-level city by total area - covering more than 2 million square kilometers of surrounding waters - and the smallest in terms of land area and population.
The main mission for Sansha, set up back in 2012 for the sake of implementing the country's South China Sea strategy, is to give publicity to maritime culture as well as China's sovereignty over the vast waters. The city, or administrative region, therefore can't follow the path of other Chinese cities that put a strong focus on economic development. As a new city, Sansha requires a lot of efforts in building infrastructure, improving city services and expanding public facilities. As a doorman safeguarding China's southern gate, Sansha also shoulders the responsibility of ensuring regular patrols, maritime law enforcement and keeping watch over the territorial waters.
A reasonable level of tourism development is a must, but by no means should the city turn into a paradise for tourists or a hot place for development. Otherwise, the natural ecological environment of the surrounding waters will be ruined. The possible set-up of Sansha as a role model for environmental protection in the South China Sea is therefore of vital importance for green efforts in the entire South China Sea.
The ocean is vast yet fragile. Humans and the ocean maintain stability through the original ecological environment. Big development plans might increase income and improve livelihoods, but risk endangering the ocean with the destruction of maritime environment and worsening levels of man-made pollution. As a consequence, the ecological environment of some islands has become increasingly embarrassing. For example, many islands in the Maldives have turned into refuse dumps filled with trash left by tourists, with tons of waste incineration included in their daily task list. The smell contrasts strongly with the limpid waters. Indonesia's Bali also has seen its beaches and sewer network clogged by garbage bags, which has forced the local government to push for the use of recyclable cassava plastic bags.
Sansha, administering more than 200 islets, reefs, sandbanks and shoals, has abundant marine resources for tourism and could be called China's equivalent to the Maldives. If the city over exploits its tourism resources, it won't be long before its surrounding waters become turbid and its islets and reefs become enveloped in rubbish. China is already the world's top outbound tourism market. It's fairly conceivable that these effects would arise if domestic tourists swarm into Sansha's seawaters.
It is worrying that there are already signs of overheating in tourism in Sansha. According to media reports, some islets have adopted an urban-planning approach which implicates a makeover of the islets' original topographic features with the construction of concrete buildings and the establishment of cement roads that destroy the islets' vegetation. Some of the city's engineering projects haven't taken into account the surrounding environment. Moreover, building materials are liable to creating seawater pollution or even ocean trash.
The fragility of the ocean's ecology means Sansha must take a cautious approach with tourism development. City development and public projects shouldn't pursue grandiose goals, as human social behavior deeply changes the natural ecology of the islets and reefs. Thus Sansha is advised to only allow a low level of city and tourism development and focus on implementing maritime strategy, safeguarding the seawater territories and protecting the ocean's ecology through scientific development.
China has shifted from a traditional land-rich country toward one attaching growing importance to its ocean presence, which means the country is not just looking to prove its capability in safeguarding and governing its territorial seas, but also in establishing Sansha's seawaters as a paradigm of ecological civilization.
Sansha's waters are inarguably China's blue ocean territories, but it should be pointed out that they are at the heart of South China Sea geopolitics. Not only do surrounding countries want to get their hands on the disputed waters in the South China Sea, but big powers that are not a party to the issue are also attempting to interfere. The reason behind China's set-up of Sansha is an intention to declare China's maritime sovereignty and ensure the country's maritime law enforcement on a regular basis, which clearly falls under the category of China's hard power. In the meanwhile, China should put in place an orderly governance mechanism to prevent damage to the ecological environment of the waters. Otherwise, relevant countries and external forces would hit out at China and orchestrate anti-China waves in the South China Sea. Further, international ocean organizations and environmental protection groups would also throw stones at China. That said, a greener and more ecological Sansha would embody China's soft power.
Building Sansha into a beautiful sea city is not a means of turning it into a tourist attraction or changing it into a modern city. The top priority of the city is to safeguard the country's ocean territories, and then to protect the ecological environment of the surrounding water area. It is in accordance with China's core interests to pursue a greener and more beautiful Sansha, which also helps in upholding the country's martitime sovereignty.
The author is a senior research fellow with the Charhar Institute, a non-governmental think tank. firstname.lastname@example.org