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New S China Sea Marine Survey Highlights Need for Cooperation

Resources sit at the heart of regional competition in the South China Sea, and core among them is not oil and gas or seabed minerals, but fisheries. Yet efforts to establish effective regional fisheries management remain mired in political tensions and territorial disputes.

Overfishing, illegal, unlicensed and unreported (IUU) fishing, habitat destruction, and environmental change are central stress points in regional geopolitical competition. 

A recent survey of scientists, analysts and security professionals in and around the South China Sea region highlighted the link between environmental and food security and traditional security.

Respondents noted the importance of scientific research, data collection and dissemination, and science-based inputs into the policy sphere as one key factor to both manage regional fisheries and to influence broader strategic decisions.

While scientific cooperation and science diplomacy are insufficient to resolve the complexity of regional differences, such is both necessary and has historical precedent. 

The South China Sea is a vital international waterway, fishing ground, and focal point of regional and global geopolitical tensions. 

Competing territorial claims, including China’s increasingly unambiguous assertion of its so-called nine-dash line, and the growing US-China competition in and around Taiwan, show no sign of resolution in the near future. Increased attention to IUU fishing adds to the securitization of fisheries already well under way with China’s and other countries’ use of maritime militia.

Tensions among nations in the South China Sea region are exacerbated by the stresses on regional fish stocks. Fish respect no political borders, and thus national fisheries management programs only have limited efficacy. 

As the tragedy of the commons unfolds in real time, respondents to our recent South China Sea Marine Survey subscribe to the idea that cooperation can and does address the softer issues such as fisheries management and marine science research.

The three major takeaways from the survey are:

  • Although geopolitical issues top the list of concerns in the South China Sea, many of these issues have underlying environmental factors, particularly surrounding fisheries.
  • Scientific research and science diplomacy has the potential to address some of these factors contributing to regional tensions.
  • Given the importance of environmental factors impacting food security and strategic competition in the South China Sea, respondents suggest an increased need for policy makers to better understand the environmental science of fisheries.

With coral reefs dying as a result of an ecological catastrophe unfolding in the region’s once fertile and prized fishing grounds, there is an urgency to identify ways that the South China Sea can become a body of water that unites, rather than divides. 

Our survey reinforces the concerns for marine resource management and conservation efforts because of the present environmental degradation.

As reclamations destroy marine habitats, agricultural and industrial run-off poison coastal waters, and overfishing depletes fish stocks, it is no wonder that more marine biologists voices are vital in a rules-based ecological approach to protect the environment and the threats to endangered species, including sea turtles, sharks, and giant clams. 

Cooperative mechanisms

It is encouraging that the China-ASEAN Plan of Action on a Closer Partnership of Science, Technology and Innovation plan (2021-2025) was agreed upon to explore new and sustainable science-driven cooperation mechanisms.

This agreement, along with marine environment focused forums and workshops, are shaping a new narrative about the ecological dangers of biodiversity loss, climate change, coral-reef depletion, pollution and collapsing fisheries.

While these are recognized, political and security trends continue to weigh against rapid breakthroughs in cooperation and multilateral management. 

But there are historical precedents for oceanic international collaboration, even among states that are not strongly aligned. This includes the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) tectonics drilling surveys conducted in 2014 among scientists from the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, India and Brazil in the South China Sea.

Others like the South China Sea Monsoon Experiment (1996-2001), initiated by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, brought together scientists from Taiwan, Australia and the US.

The collaboration chronicle includes the Joint Oceanographic Marine Scientific Research Expeditions conducted between the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS) from 1996-2007. More recently, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to resume their joint marine scientific expeditions.

Marine scientists and policy experts believe that the best way to engage in effective ocean-science cooperation is to examine the common interests in the region and that now encompasses an examination of climate change, ocean acidification, severe weather patterns associated with increasing number of typhoons, and the role of marine protected areas, with a practical eye on preserving vital fisheries and access to maritime food resources for generations to come.

Although science diplomacy is not a new approach to international relations in general, the time for its adoption in dispute management in the South China Sea has arrived. Ocean science has been adopted as a diplomatic tool for peace-building, since scientific evidence informs negotiations, fostering joint marine research and capacity-building.

The Mediterranean Sea stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to Asia on the east and separates Europe from Africa. Like the South China Sea, it has its fair share of conflicts, including the Israel-Palestine clashes on the Gaza Strip.

However, the Mediterranean Action Plan represents a regional monitoring network and legal instruments to protect the region from environmental exploitation and remains the ocean floorboard for continuing cooperative efforts. 

For years, the Arctic Council highlighted how scientific collaboration in at times contested spaces could proceed while intentionally bypassing traditional security disagreements.

Comprising eight Arctic nations, including rivals such as the US and Russia and indigenous groups, council members have shaped several legally binding agreements reinforcing environmental protection and sustainability. One of the recent ones was signed in May 2017 on enhancing Arctic scientific cooperation.

The Arctic Council, however, is also a cautionary tale, as the failure to establish mechanisms to manage geopolitical tensions has now left its future collaboration – and that of its partners in the region – in question. 

The convergence of science and geopolitics necessitates the expansion of scientific forums and collaborative problem solving among all neighbors.

At times, scientific collaboration may operate in ways that defy strategic rivalries (US-USSR space cooperation during the Cold War is a shining example), but just as the policymakers need to be more acutely aware of the scientific information in shaping their policies, so must scientists be more aware of the geopolitical realities that impact the space for collaboration and cooperation. 

By engaging with both scientists and security and policy professionals, our survey seeks to facilitate a more effective dialogue that can help bridge the gap between geopolitical competition and regional and global issues that are beyond the reach of any single nation. 

Source : Asia Times