Science Diplomacy is Required to Avert a South China Sea Ecological Collapse

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The maritime dispute in the South China Sea remains as intractable as ever. James Borton of the Foreign Policy Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, author of the book Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground, calls for countries in the region, particularly the key claimants, to focus on the opportunities offered by science diplomacy. Regardless of the geopolitical benefits, he reckons, urgent multilateral cooperation in marine research is essential, given the unfolding ecological catastrophe in the contested waters.

Science Diplomacy is Required to Avert a South China Sea Ecological Collapse

A matter of ecological life and death: A sea turtle glides over coral reef – Creatures such as this face an uncertain future in the South China Sea due to habitat destruction and poaching (Credit: BrockenInaGlory)

The South China Sea is the home, for now, to some of the most spectacular bio-diverse coral reefs in the world. Yet, satellite images and the marine science research reveal the rapid destruction of coral reefs, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and fishery collapses.

With environmental security shaping a new South China Sea narrative about ecological challenges, this concept represents a crucial effort to link the impact of environmental change to both national and international security. 

The Spratly islands in the South China Sea are the focal point of an intractable territorial dispute that represents a serious threat to regional security in Southeast Asia. Six governments – China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – have all laid claim to all or some of the more than 230 islets, reefs and shoals in the Spratly area. 

It was nearly six years ago that the five-judge tribunal sitting in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in a unanimous decision. In the ruling, the arbitrators found that China’s large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands caused severe harm to coral and violated the country’s obligation to preserve fragile marine environments. “The tribunal has no doubt that China’s artificial island-building activities on the seven reefs in the Spratly Islands have caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment,” reads the judgment.

Two of the 17 parts of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) cite the merits of forging of bilateral and multilateral agreements for marine science research. Professor John McManus, a marine biologist and ecologist at the University of Miami and a coral reef specialist who has studied and regularly visited the South China Sea for over a quarter of a century, provided expert analysis to the tribunal. The most important resource in the heavily fished waters, he reckoned, is the larvae of fish and invertebrates. He has called for the establishment of an international protected marine zone in the region. “Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands,” McManus claims. “Given the rapid proliferation of international peace parks around the world, it is time to take positive steps toward the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park.”

Dead coral off the Spratlys: Science diplomacy is critical to address the environmental crisis (Credit: John McManus)

Dead coral off the Spratlys: Science diplomacy is critical to address the environmental crisis (Credit: John McManus)

Policymakers may do well to take a lesson or two from nature as they examine how best to address the complex and myriad sovereignty claims. The marriage of policy and science is essential to navigating the perilous geopolitical waters. The concept of science diplomacy is not a new paradigm: It embraces collaboration and adroitly addresses problems related to environmental protection where they arise. Science diplomacy can help directly and indirectly promote confidence building among the parties involved in the South China Sea dispute, offering a much-needed strategic pause in rising regional tensions. The probability that science diplomacy could successfully manage the quarrel is quite high because of the timing, credibility and potential for support from major powers. 

Without much notice, cooperation in the exchange of data and information, consensus on the value of marine protected areas, and joint research expeditions in the South China Sea have been increasing. For example, last year, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to resume their Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMRE-SCS), which dates back to 1994 but was suspended in 2007. 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment has recognized the enormous challenges to sustainability in coastal and shared ocean regions, warning that a multilateral scientific approach to the ecosystem is needed. Marine scientists across the region are preoccupied with identifying shared solutions to this environmental challenge. 

While economic and strategic security issues may have been the driving force behind ASEAN regional integration, environmental concerns will have to play the same role, going forward. The unfolding ecological catastrophe is making worse the diminishment of once rich fish stocks, already severely compromised by overfishing. Reclamations are destroying reefs, while agricultural and industrial effluent poisons coastal waters. All this is creating food-security challenges and undermining the already hardscrabble livelihoods of fishermen and others.

Six years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, in the US has warned that as many as one million species could be extinct in the coming decades. Fishing has remained at an unsustainable 10-12 million tons a year for decades – a number that could double when illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) practices are taken into account. 

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) confirms that the South China Sea accounts for as much as one-tenth of global fish catches. By 2030, China will account for 38 percent of global fish consumption. Overfishing and widespread destruction of coral reefs urgently require the intervention of science policy to safeguard stewardship of this vital area.

China has been at the forefront of the unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks, With over 2,000 blue-water commercial trawlers and over 100,000 fishing vessels, including a 3,000-ton fish-processing ship, evidence is compelling that Chinese fishing operations are not only responsible for the destruction of coral reefs but also contributing to the fisheries collapse.

It is no wonder that mainland Chinese marine scientists are stepping up protection of designated marine zones. China has more than 270 marine protected areas (MPAs), comprising about 5 percent of its national waters according to Li Yunzhou, postdoctoral associate at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in the US. While China does have a history of establishing MPAs, policy experts and scientists recognize that the South China Sea waters are at a tipping point. For Beijing to achieve their objectives of mitigating habitat degradation and reining in the overexploitation of resources, all stakeholders must be engaged. It will take urgent international cooperative action for China to improve the effectiveness of its maritime management and governance.

Designating protected reserves is an emerging tool for marine conservation and management. Sometimes called “ecological reserves” or “no-take areas”, they are vital to the conservation of marine resources. Vietnam has been fast-tracking its own model marine protected area program. Cu Lao Cham is located about 20 kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. The Cham Islands MPA was established in December 2005. Professor Chu Manh Trinh, a Da Nang University biology professor, is largely responsible for mapping out the objectives for protecting the natural resources of the Cham archipelago. Hanoi is rolling out more MPAs as part of their national drive to strengthen food security. The protected zones play an important role in the development of the marine economy, improving livelihoods in coastal fishing communities. At the same time, they are useful in asserting national sovereignty claims.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea (Credit: Goran tek-en)

China and other countries in the region, particularly the key claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam, must move quickly to assert the need for multilateral scientific research cooperation. Recent biological surveys have revealed that the extent of the deterioration and destruction of coral reefs. Fish species in the contested region have declined precipitously from 460 to around 261. “Regional cooperation in ocean, climate change and sustainability is the best and only way to support the future,” argues Yu Weidong, an ocean expert from the School of Atmospheric Sciences at Sun Yat-Sen University in China.

The environmental challenges such as those posed in the South China Sea are not restricted to any one country. The destruction and depletion of marine resources in the region’s waters harm all nations. All stakeholders – business, government and civil society – should be mobilized to act, perhaps forming a coordinating coalition modelled after the Rainforest Action Network.

There are frameworks for cooperation already in place. Southeast Asian scientists such as Vietnam’s Chu Manh Trinh are regular participants in international marine science conferences and meetings with Chinese counterparts. Manila and Hanoi’s resumption of the JOMSRE-SCS could offer huge dividends for science-driven collaboration for all claimant nations. Proposed measures for sharing science data may also inspire ASEAN to deepen cooperation in regional marine resources management. 

If there are to be any fish left in the contested South China Sea waters, an ASEAN ecological agreement could steer claimants and others to unite around the launch of an international maritime peace park or, at the very least, a cooperative marine protected area that could serve as an international ecological and marine resources laboratory for all.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


James Borton

James Borton

Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University

James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.

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