The environmental dimension of the South China Sea Dispute

Alma Maria O. Salvador

Posted on April 15, 2016

Writers on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute who refer to the concept of environmental security have reframed the conflict between China and the claimant states as a resource use conflict. They examine how diminishing renewable resources and natural resource degradation are pushing states to unilaterally further their maritime security interests at the expense of another state’s security concerns.

Of the existing literature, authors Alan Dupont and Christopher Baker, Zhang Hangzhou, and Katie Lhebling have argued that resource competition in the region is evolving in terms of the visible increase in the number of seismic surveys in the SCS. Resource depletion in China’s nearshore waters has also driven the government to support distant water fishing even it entailed fishing in disputed EEZ waters. These have led to multiple often violent fishing incidents between China’s fishers and maritime surveillance patrol agents and the fishers and law enforcers of claimant states Vietnam and the Philippines. These encounters have grown with more frequency since 2007, when heightened competition seemed to have transformed China’s maritime strategy from active fishing to active law enforcement of maritime claims, including islands and new fishing grounds.

The other side of an environmental security perspective refers to the role of collective action and institutionalism in mitigating open access resource use problems.

Referring to Professor Elinor Ostrom’s framework on the commons, South China Sea is viewed as a common pool resource, in which actors, who are in this case, the regional coastal and littoral states, either act unilaterally, increase maritime insecurity, and drive other states to further conflict or they formulate rules and institutions and address open access problems.

It is within this context that Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, and others who wrote the August 2012 White Paper on the West Philippine Sea establish the South China Sea as a global commons or a large marine ecosystem with linkages between regional resource systems in terms of biological and economic production. SCS’s deep waters, then are ecologically interconnected to the coastal waters of Malaysia and Indonesia in the southern most edge of the SCS, the Gulf of Thailand, Vietnam and China in the west and the Gulf of Tonkin on the north. The West Philippine Seas in the northern coast of the country and the Sulu-Sulawesi waters in the southern coast constitute an integrated marine area, i.e. they too are ecologically interlinked to the SCS.

As a common pool resource, the SCS is both a source of environmental security and insecurity. Based on the compiled data of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, the SCS is one of the world’s most productive fishing zone in terms of annual marine production, contributing an average of 11% of annual world fisheries exports. SCS waters provide for marine transport, which is the backbone of regional maritime trade. It is a significant source of marine biodiversity.

On the one side, SCS is exposed to rampant overfishing and illegal, unreported, and undocumented (IUU) fishing by actors within the littoral states. Allison Witter et al’s studies on the SCS in terms of stock assessment, fish landings, and catch per unit effort of fisheries indicate, that as a whole, SCS’s fishing grounds have been overexploited or fished above their maximum sustainability yield (MSY) limits since the 1980s. The most overfished regions are located in the fishing grounds of Thailand, Vietnam, and China in the west side of SCS. Since the ’80s, the Lingayen Gulf side of the SCS has been endangered by fishing over and above the MSY and in the 1990s until the 2000, by declining catch per unit effort levels.

Dr. Mary Ann Palma and Professor Martin Tsamenyi of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) demonstrate how unlicensed fishing, fishing with fake papers, and/or with illegal fishing gears (purse seine, trawling, super lights, etc.) and methods (cyanide poisoning, blast fishing) posed a major maritime challenge to the Sulawesi states of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Various forms of IUU have been committed at an alarming rate by Philippine, Malaysian, and Indonesian flag carrying vessels as well as by the flag vessels of Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. In addition to the yellow fin tuna, sharks, corals reefs, sea turtles, and marine mammals have been targets of the live reef fish and aquarium trade involving China, Hong Kong, Taiwan during the period of the late ’90s to the early and mid 2000.

Philippine and Indonesian naval and coast guards apprehensions of hundreds of national and foreign fishing vessels and their confiscations of several hundred more corals from national and foreign fishers reflect the magnitude of maritime security threat where economic losses do not compensate for the amenity value and environmental quality losses in the Sulawesi Sea region.

An environmental standpoint nuances the Philippine state’s construction of the SCS dispute beyond the settlement of maritime boundaries. Overfishing and IUU continue to threaten the state’s archipelagic security or threats to people’s livelihoods, the islands and interconnected islands and waters of the Philippine archipelago. Threats of piracy, illegal drug and people trafficking, maritime terrorism, oil spills and maritime disasters are intermestic and transnational in nature and will therefore require a combined archipelagic and maritime approach.

This is not to underestimate the Philippine’s diplomatic work on arbitration against China.

In fact, Dr. Mary Ann Palma has argued that the settlement of maritime boundaries, is a “fundamental element in upholding good order of the sea.” Observance of maritime boundaries may lessen the occurrences of fishing incidents to the scale of the Bajo de Masinloc incident in July 2012, the standoff over the Chinese oil rig Hi981 between China and Vietnam off the Parcel Islands in July 2014 and the water cannon incident between China Coast Guard and the Philippine Marines in Ayungin Shoal in March 2014.

There is an apparently a lot more work to be done in this vicinity, as the Philippine government has yet to formalize its archipelagic sea lanes as part of its obligations to Art 47 of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). It also has yet to address the question of overlapping maritime jurisdictions with Palau, China, and Taiwan as well as settle its differences with the Vietnamese and Malaysian submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) of their extended continental shelves which overlap with the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Group of Islands.

Given the arguments on environmental security, law and the political settlement of maritime boundaries alone will not reverse the situation in the SCS. To quote from Prof Jay Batongbacal’s Jaime V. Ongpin Memorial Lecture at Ateneo de Manila last October 2012, “(b) oth literature and record of experience of States show that the establishment of maritime boundaries alone do not change the objective conditions and practical problems of marine management.”

Alma Maria O. Salvador, PhD, assistant professor of political science at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) is currently involved in School of Social Sciences supported research on Philippine naval modernization with Daisy See, Assistant Professor and ADMU Director of Chinese Studies.