China shares a basic concern with most nations to exploit the world's oceans for commercial gain. The sea promises to alleviate shortages on land even of land and in food, energy and natural resources. China's eastern seaboard provinces stand to be enriched by the development of the country's diverse marine interests to gain as launching points to maritime operations, as processing and export bases, as distribution points to inland markets, and from transportation and port construction. On the political front, maritime sovereignty claims extend China's geopolitical influence towards the Pacific and southwards across the shipping lanes of the South China Seas.
In addition to its 9.6m sq km land area, China claims jurisdiction over a massive 3m sq km of sea, stretching along a continental shelf that skirts Vietnam, crossing the depths of the South China Basin some 600-1,000km south-east of Hainan. Her claims stretch as far south as to Malaysia (Sarawak) and Brunei, and sweeping through the disputed possessions of the Nansha archipelago (or Spratly Islands) off the Philippines. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by the National People's Congress in May 1996, China claims exclusive economic rights over sea delimitations within 200 nautical miles of its possessions.
But for all the expanse, China supports each citizen with less than one-hundredth of a square kilometre per person of Mainland, and a mere third again of sea. The wedge of 11 eastern seaboard provinces and municipalities that constitutes 13 percent of China's Mainland territory is home to 40 percent of the population. Economic dynamism ?and with it demand for land, resources and increased prosperity is greatest here.
The eastern seaboard provinces are in competition with the provinces of central and west China, which would like to add value to their abundant natural resources. But looking out to sea, the several regions from Liaoning in the north to Guangxi in the south need only compete with each other, or exploit jurisdictional monopolies, to develop their economies. They will be the beneficiaries of China's national strategy, outlined in the 1996 China Ocean Agenda for the 21st Century, and the May 1998 publication from the State Council Information Office, entitled The Development of China's Marine Programmes. They must take the lion's share of the government's 2010 target of 10 percent contribution by maritime industries to GDP, up from Yn300bn achieved in 1997 and Yn500bn intended for 2000.
Beijing sees development opportunities in maritime areas at large, but in particular in local shallows and tidal areas, in the exploitation of energy (especially oil and naturalgas), chemical and other resources at sea, and on land, with the construction of ports, harbours, tourist venues and leisure facilities. Fishing, chemicals, transport, shipbuilding, oil and gas, tourism and other sea-related industries contributed Yn300bn to national output in 1997 according to State Council Information Office figures, up on the National Bureau of Oceanography's prediction that technology alone could lift the 1995 figure of Yn220bn by 15 percent annually.
To organic growth and technology-led development must be added opportunities for limiting economic losses as forecasting and prevision at sea improve. Since 1990, China estimates losses of around Yn10bn annually from natural disasters originating at sea, spending close to Yn3bn annually on prevention measures.
China's coastal waters have a role to play in easing pressures on land. Reclamation could relieve mounting population pressures, which are expected to build to the 2030s. China believes it can reclaim more than 10,000 sq km over the next 50 years, housing some 30m people. Desalination will offset serious long-term water shortages; projects will lift current annual desalination levels from around 4m tonnes of seawater. Tianjin leads in drawing water from the sea, but new technology is being introduced in many locations. Island populations – for example, across the Zhoushan archipelago – stand to gain further from expanded purification facilities.
Nine provinces (Liaoning, Hebei, Fujian, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan) and the municipalities of Shanghai and Tianjin have direct stakes in the maritime economy through the exploitation of defined jurisdictions. Zhejiang embraces the most productive marine areas in China's coastal waters, around the Zhoushan archipelago of some 1,390 islands and 20,000 sq km of sea area. Zhoushan supports more than 200 ocean-going fishing vessels capable of delivering 80,000 to 100,000 tonnes of fish annually. The islands' tally of almost 1.2m tonnes of marine products in 1997 was a record high. Commercial aquaculture is expanding, and Zhoushan has set a target of 50,000 tonnes annually, up from 26,000 tonnes today. The region is also a major salt producer.
Shandong, at 6.1m tonnes the top ranking province for aquatic products in 1997, intends raising the GDP contribution of fishing, coastal tourism and sea transportation to six percent in 2000 and 10 percent in 2010.
The northern province boasts 3,000km of coastline. Shanghai wants to build on the Yn35bn earned from maritime activities in 1997. Fujian says it will raise the contribution of the marine sector – which includes shipping – to 15 percent of GDP by 2010, or Yn170bn. The marine economy, and especially tourism, is the fastest growing component of Hainan's GDP growth, pulling
in more than Yn10bn in 1997, one-quarter of the island's GDP, Yn3bn of it from 420,000 tonnes of sea products. Most coastal regions and localities sport maritime commercial ambitions. Dandong, a city on the northern border with North Korea, plans to lift output from water products to Yn4.3bn in five years, one-third of local GDP, from Yn2.4bn in 1997. Three-quarters of this, it says, would be marine produce.
The State Council paper appreciates that potential is to be measured against sustainability. Time will tell whether the central government is able to discipline the competing interests of provinces and the expectations of strategic industries, under its unified national plans for sustainable development. Equally important, China's ambitions are circumscribed by tense relationships with rival claimants in the South China Sea. Incidents recur off. Vietnam and the Philippines, where China consolidates it claims with development and construction. China is also in dispute in the north with Japan, over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have stakes in islands, reefs, atolls, and their surrounding waters, most notably the Nansha Islands.
Cultivating the sea
Much attention is given to China's ability to feed itself and the uncertainties of the impact of future demand on world food supplies. Studies focus on agriculture, but the sea also makes a contribution. Under 950,000 hectares of shallows and tidelands are currently exploited, but China believes that technology could lead to 2.6m of a total 13m hectares being developed for aquatic production over and above the current yields of 7.9m tonnes, already four times the level of a decade earlier. Further afield, Chinese vessels compete on open waters, bringing in just under 14m tonnes of fish in 1997. Here, and closer to home for example in the Bohai and Yellow Seas which are enclosed between the Korean peninsula and north-east China – questions of sustainability are at their most serious. Stocks of some fish have plummeted in recent years.
The greater opportunities lie in boosting the productivity of cultivated plant and marine food closer to land. Already, China has made progress in expanding fish farms, sea kale and seaweed, shellfish and crustaceans. Shandong cultivates some 60 percent of its sea plant and animal products, with sea farms covering 340,000 hectares, and strengths in kelp and scallops. China's health industries and research base also have interests in the sea, which is thought to provide them with an estimated Yn1bn annually in medicines and health products.
Pumping oil and gas
As with the need to raise food supplies, so with energy. China has been a net importer of oil since 1993. Onshore oil production has peaked at major fields; new finds tend to be remote and infrastructure inadequate to transport it to areas of greatest demand in the east. Offshore supplies are an attractive alternative for exploration, exploitation and development.
Verified reserves amount to almost 1.5bn tonnes of oil and 320bn cubic metres of gas. China's 20-odd fields pumped 16.3m tonnes of crude in 1997 (from a lowly 100,000 tonnes in the early 1980s), and 2.6bn cubic metres of gas (on China National Offshore Oil Corporation figures), or 4bn cubic metres (on State Council Information Office figures). The offshore oil figure compares with 20m tonnes of onshore crude in west China and around 60m tonnes on land around the Bohai Bay area. Offshore oil production now amounts to one-third that of China's largest onshore area, at Daqing (50m tonnes a year). South China Sea production for example, off the Pearl estuary, ranks fourth nationally. China predicts offshore production of 16m tonnes oil and up to 10bn cubic metres of gas by 2000.
Capital finance is problematic. By 1997, China had relied on US$6bn in foreign investment, entering more than 130 con-tracts with 67 overseas oil concerns. Beijing's priorities are split between maritime resources, the promise of new energy finds in the west (Xinjiang and Qinghai) and addressing the logistical problems these pose and securing supplies overseas, for example, in central Asia, the Middle East and South America. Although China has high hopes of significant reserves at sea, domestic oil companies are investing heavily in alternative sources. The clean alternative of natural gas is also in competition with coal-bed methane, in a country where coal is by far the largest energy source.
China has numerous laws and regulations that aim to control pollution at sea, from shipping, town and city discharge, and development in areas such as oil and gas. The Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000) and the national Long-Term Programme to 2010 include marine environmental protection. The State Oceanic Administration is drafting a new law to unify regulation of the seas. China has limited fishing seasons – 1995 regulations banned fishing in July and August. This was extended to three months last year, and the area affected expanded north of 35 degrees. Restrictions have been extended south of 26 degrees, as well. Mesh regulations and other measures are also in place to protect fish stocks after serious decline between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. Monitoring and supervisory services are in place, with the State Oceanographic Administration undertaking its largest study on the seas since 1949, beginning in 1997.
Problems for the environment
Nevertheless, offshore waters are subject to a number of threats: red tides have become common, and nitrogen and phosphate levels remain high in coastal waters and bay or estuary areas like the Pearl and the Yangtze, near major cities. The State Environmental Protection Administration has plans to clean the Bohai Sea over the next three decades, in response to fears of mounting pollution caused by waste water discharge (2.8bn tonnes a year) and other pollutants (700,000 tonnes a year, or half the national coastal discharge). Red tides reached record levels in the Bohai area in 1998. Cultivation and breeding bring their own particular problems, including poor quality strains and a susceptibility to disease.
In common with most countries, government will balance domestic demands against the costs to the environment, and the suspicion that development has come first will be dispelled with difficulty. China's situation is complicated by the internal politics of development, and the tendency for provinces to put their own interests ahead of the central government's understanding of national and regional interests. Whatever balance is reached, China is set to forge ahead to harness productivity at sea.