On August 5, Chinese and Philippine vessels were involved in a tense face-off in in a disputed area of the South China Sea near the Second Thomas Shoal, a formation occupied for decades by Filipino military based in a rusting grounded navy ship. Two days later, Philippine officials presented to media videos and photographs showing six Chinese Coast guard and two militia ships blocking two chartered civilian boats carrying supplies to the Philippine forces stationed on the shoal. At one point, the Chinese trained a powerful water cannon on one of the supply craft. The Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador in Manila to lodge a strong protest. The US, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Japan issued statements in support of the Philippines.
This latest encounter between China and one of its main rival claimants in the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea, is another reminder of the potential for conflict in the area, especially as the US and its allies and partners – including countries from outside East Asia – have been asserting the freedom of navigation by traversing waters that China considers to be its sovereign territory. The South China Sea is regarded as a possible flashpoint that might turn the intense China-US strategic competition into a hot conflict.
In considering the longstanding quarrel among the six parties involved, it is important to understand that at the heart of this regional row are resources, chief among them neither oil nor gas nor seabed minerals, but fisheries. Yet political tensions and the territorial disputes have marred efforts to establish effective regional fisheries management. The biggest issues: overfishing; illegal, unlicensed and unreported (IUU) fishing; habitat destruction; and environmental change, all of these problems having international implications.
Our recent survey of scientists, analysts and security professionals across the region made clear the link between human security priorities – the environment and food – and traditional security. By engaging with both scientists and security and policy professionals, we aim to promote more meaningful discussions that can bridge the divide between geopolitical competition and the need to tackle regional and global issues that are beyond the ability of any single country or government to handle.
Respondents generally emphasized the importance of scientific research, data collection and dissemination, as well as how critical it is to take into account science-based inputs (evidence) in the policy sphere as a key factor both to manage fisheries and to influence broader strategic decisions. While scientific cooperation and science diplomacy will certainly not resolve the complex regional differences, they are necessary channels of communication and trust-building that not without historical precedent.