Security, marine environment in South China Sea need tending to

Two great challenges loom in the disputed waters and features in the South China Sea: the need for resilient maritime security enforcement mechanisms and protection against further environmental degradation.

The maritime space is essential to human development, providing sea lanes and valuable resources to fuel our societies. South-east Asian waters host some of the most diverse global marine ecosystems in the world, hosting 76 per cent of the world's coral species and 37 per cent of reef fish species. According to Mr Edgardo Gomez, professor at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, coral reefs are among the most economically lucrative of ecosystems, valued at over US$350,000 (S$485,000) per hectare per year. Ocean filling (or island-building as it is also known) and large-scale illegal fishing thus come with both an environmental and economic price.

Additional problems in the South China Sea stem from ongoing sea robberies, piracy and incursions of territorial waters - a reflection of the reality that littoral states simply do not have a robust capacity to cooperate in patrolling their waters.

Safeguarding maritime security and the environment requires the consistent practice of non-confrontational diplomacy. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares "states have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment", South China Sea claimant states should further bolster their ability to collaborate in both protecting the shared maritime space and preserving the fragile ecosystems therein. Existing coast guard patrols, for instance, target the encroachment of foreign fishing vessels or other intruders who partake in illegal fishing, clamming or piracy. Despite the increased capacity to crack down on such illegal activities, regional coast guards are limited by small fleet numbers, the dearth of advanced surveillance technology essential for tracking incursions and a large area of operation. Similarly, efforts to enact greater environmental protection measures have been inhibited by the inability to decide who should bear the financial burden of destruction to the natural habitat. Beijing has denied its island-building is destructive, even establishing its own environmental protection fund to "support scientific research, and development of new methods and equipment in environmental protection". Past regional efforts in conjunction with the UN Environment Programme have been a helpful start in disseminating information about maritime and environmental security problems, but more is required of claimant states to build a shared understanding of acceptable use of the South China Sea waters.

An increased capacity to protect the shared waters of the South China Sea must begin first and foremost at the highest levels of government across South-east Asia. Absent the resolve and commitment of incumbent leaders, ongoing regional conversations which explore potential cooperative mechanisms may fail to secure the momentum necessary for implementation. With presidential-level support, the claimant states can readily build on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to undertake cooperative activities targeting marine environmental protection, such as fishery agreements. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) guidelines on management of deep-sea fisheries can serve as the basis for demarcating governance frameworks and fisheries in a way that ensures long-term conservation and sustainable use of resources. An FAO approach to fisheries in the South China Sea further entails taking the needs and desires of littoral societies into consideration, thereby ensuring that future generations continue to benefit from the maritime space.

A Chinese fishing boat and its crew being detained in March for illegally harvesting coral and endangered turtles in waters near a disputed atoll in the South China Sea. Scenarios like this can be prevented if South-east Asian nations and China cooperate in safeguarding the area's maritime security and environment. PHOTO: TAIWAN COAST GUARD ADMINISTRATION

Cooperation need not be limited to fisheries, however, and must also begin to address continued destruction of the coral reef ecosystems. Illegal fishing vessels can be sunk to create artificial reefs, as in Malaysia, rather than detonated. Disputed waters could be turned into an international marine park - neutral territory from which all could continue to benefit. To fund these efforts, claimant states can accept voluntary donations or non-governmental funding. Where feasible, governments could encourage the tourist industry to levy a small tax upon tourists in peripheral regions to create a small revenue stream.

Lastly, in addition to regional initiatives, maritime security and environmental protection can also include Australia, the United States and European partners. South-east Asian coast guards could be trained by Australian forces, for instance, on coastal patrols. The US could consider selling its sea surveillance systems and sensor technology to Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. An effective enforcement mechanism would aid in deterring potential lawbreakers, and for those who persist in territorial incursions and illegal fishing or harvesting, more advanced surveillance platforms coupled with a stronger coast guard capacity will yield tighter regulation and enforcement in the South China Sea.

The Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague's decision reinforces the duty of claimant states to prevent - or at minimum, mitigate - further downward spirals to the regional maritime environment. China and South-east Asian countries agree on the importance of fostering cooperation in the South China Sea in order to maintain regional peace, stability and access to important economic resources. Where disagreements emerge, however, is in how best to nurture such collaboration. In the absence of a treaty to ensure maritime security and enhance environmental protection, alternative steps must immediately be undertaken within the region to prevent the bad from becoming worse.

  • The writer is a PhD candidate in war studies at King's College London and the National University of Singapore
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'Security, marine environment in S.China Sea need tending to'. Print Edition | Subscribe