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Experts to China: cooperate or South China Sea fisheries may collapse

An underwater view of the reef at Layang Layang Atoll in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

An underwater view of the reef at Layang Layang Atoll in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

  • More than half the fishing vessels in the world operate in the South China Sea, where sovereign rights have been an object of fierce contention among bordering countries.
  • Scientists have been warning that the sea is fast becoming the site of an environmental disaster, the impending collapse of one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
  • Now a group of experts that includes geopolitical strategists as well as marine biologists is calling on the disputing parties to come together to manage and protect the sea’s fish stocks and marine environment.
  • Effective management hinges on China’s active participation, but it remains unclear whether that country, now the dominant power in the sea with a big appetite for seafood, will cooperate.

For years, sovereign rights in the South China Sea have been an object of fierce contention among the states that border it: the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam (all members of the 10-nation ASEAN group), China, their giant neighbor to the north, and Taiwan as well. But while the bordering states jockey for advantage, with China now clearly the dominant local power, scientists have been warning that the sea is fast becoming the site of an environmental disaster, the impending collapse of one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

Now a group of experts that includes geopolitical strategists as well as marine biologists is calling on the disputing parties to come together to manage and protect the sea’s fish stocks and marine environment. All can do so, the experts argue, without compromising their territorial claims. The success of any management scheme hinges on China’s whole-hearted participation, but it remains unclear whether that country, a major power with a big appetite for seafood, will cooperate.

“In the South China Sea, fish may spawn in one nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), live as juveniles in another’s, and spend most of their adult lives in a third. Overfishing or environmental destruction at any point in the chain affects all those who live around the sea,” the experts wrote this fall in a brief outlining their recommendations. “The entire South China Sea is teetering on the edge of a fisheries collapse, and the only way to avoid it is through multilateral cooperation in disputed waters.”

A Malaysian navy pier on Layang Layang Atoll in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

“Steady catches mask a serious problem”

The South China Sea, SCS for short, is a broad, semi-enclosed expanse, half again larger than the Mediterranean, and no less strategically important. More than half the fishing vessels in the world operate in the SCS, and in recent years, it has regularly produced about 12 percent of the global fish catch.

But this regularity is deceptive. “Steady catches mask a serious problem,” U.S. Air Force area specialist Adam Greer wrote in the Diplomat last year. The amount of effort required to sustain production has risen sharply, and “catches increasingly consist of smaller species whose populations have boomed as natural predators have been overfished — a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘fishing down the food web.’” A report led by University of British Columbia professors Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung concluded that biomass in the SCS has been fished down to between 5 and 30 percent of its 1950 level, and that perhaps 40 percent of the total catch is either illegal or simply unreported.

The five ­­ASEAN member states bordering the sea have staked claims to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in accordance with rules laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that came into force in 1994. These claims overlap where neighboring nations have different ideas about where to draw their baselines, but most observers agree that they shouldn’t be too hard to sort out should the need arise. China’s claim, by contrast, is legally intractable.

Map shows South China Sea, including occupied islands by country. (Unoccupied islands not shown.) Map courtesy of CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

UNCLOS, which China ratified, says China can claim only an EEZ off its southern coast extending halfway to Vietnam and the Philippine archipelago. Instead, Beijing claims that all the islands, rocks and reefs of the South China Sea have been “China’s historical territory since ancient times.”

In 1974, Chinese forces wrested control of the Paracel Islands from a South Vietnamese garrison. Subsequently, China occupied a number of reefs in the Spratly Islands adjacent to islands and reefs already occupied by Vietnamese and Philippine detachments. When Chinese Coast Guard vessels chased Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishery about 200 km (124 miles) west of Luzon, the main island of the Philippine archipelago, Manila’s patience was exhausted. It appealed to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in the Hague. When the tribunal ruled against China in July 2016, calling its extensive SCS claim incompatible with international law, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, called the ruling “nothing more than a piece of waste paper” that “will not be enforced by anyone.”

In addition to dismissing China’s “historic use” argument, the tribunal also ruled that the activities of China’s fishing fleet flouted UNCLOS injunctions to cooperate with neighbors in protecting fragile ecosystems and managing fisheries. Although Chinese Coast Guard vessels have attacked foreign fishing vessels near islands it contends are its own, China has seemed less dismissive of this part of the tribunal’s ruling. This has heartened marine biologists with decades of experience studying changes in South China Sea ecosystems, who reason that China has as much to lose as any other of the claimant states from continued free-for-all competition over dwindling resources. On that they hang a hope: that China, now strongly implanted at least as far south as the artificial islands it has built in the disputed Spratly Islands, will choose to cooperate in managing SCS fish stocks sustainably.

A Vietnamese fishing boat on the South China Sea. Photo by Jean-Pierre Bluteau via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

“Join … or we’ll eat everything”

Meetings sponsored this summer by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., brought more than two-dozen participants together to explore the dilemma. They came from the U.S., the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Chinese experts were not invited because, meeting coordinator Gregory Poling of CSIS told Mongabay, “it is difficult these days to find Chinese experts willing to call publicly for compromise on the South China Sea. At the end of the day, the goals of including a member from every claimant … and of giving ourselves the best chance of reaching consensus on a robust final product were at odds.”

Participants focused on how to induce China to work with other claimant states to limit the annual catch of fast-declining stocks of tuna, halibut, mackerel, grouper, and other prized species, and to protect dozens of reefs that supply larval fish to coastal fisheries. In September they published their recommendations online as “A Blueprint for Fisheries Management and Environmental Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Explicit in the Blueprint is the notion that all claimants must cooperate for management and protection to be effective, and that they can do so without compromising their territorial claims. Implicit in it is recognition that China must step up to lead such an effort.

China’s posture is pivotal because of the sheer size and industrial scale of its fishing fleet, which, as China’s coastal fisheries have been depleted, has ranged deeply into waters traditionally fished by other SCS states. Moreover, China has established bases in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos (the latter on the carcasses of seven reefs it destroyed for the purpose), which greatly extend the range of its naval and paramilitary forces.

China’s posture is also problematic because marine environmental protection, particularly multilateral efforts, have to date been a low priority in the SCS, ranking far behind unilateral measures aimed at dominating the sea militarily and winning control of its resources, which include oil and gas fields as well as open ocean and reef fisheries.

China’s ritual assertion of “indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea, and the adjacent waters” is a formulation associated with Mao Zedong’s reformist successor, Deng Xiaoping, who frequently coupled it with a call for “joint development” of SCS resources. However, although the ASEAN group has aimed at collective agreements that include all SCS claimants, China has shown a decided preference for unilateral action or for one-on-one pacts, arrangements that if concluded it can easily dominate. Its annual proclamation of a fishing moratorium in the northern half of the SCS is a good example of this strategy.

“China is in effect holding a gun to the head of the Southeast Asia fishing industry, saying either join our fish management arrangements or we’ll eat everything,” Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, told Mongabay.

A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

“This sea is a bit like a large bowl of soup”

And yet, this may change. Specialists argue that unilateral Chinese efforts to enforce its annual three-month ban on fishing are doomed. They say the proscribed area is too vast for China to patrol effectively. Further, Beijing’s edicts inspire the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan to urge their fishermen to defy them. For these countries, doing less would be tantamount to recognizing Chinese sovereignty over areas they claim as EEZ in conformity with UNCLOS rules.

John McManus, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami who coauthored the Blueprint, told Mongabay that to police the fish-rich areas of the expanse it claims, China would need to deploy ”an enormous enforcement fleet at tremendous expense both in terms of money and in terms of a loss of global respect — something which runs directly counter to what China is trying to achieve.”

Lina Gong, a security researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore with close ties to Chinese academics, argues that Beijing has recognized that “Chinese fishermen tend to overfish” and is moving to bring the activities of its fishing fleet under tighter control. In 2015 China reportedly accounted for 18 percent of the total world ocean catch. McManus told Mongabay he is heartened by a Chinese promise to “cut back substantially on the size of its SCS fishing fleet, which would be a major step toward sustainability.”

Not just in the CSIS Blueprint but also in policy papers and at conferences this autumn in England and Taiwan, a range of experts have been delivering a consistent message to policy-makers: fisheries management, with effective policing, can’t wait for rival states to agree on who owns what in the SCS. Instead, they say, China and its ASEAN neighbors must soon set up some sort of regional fisheries management organization. Failing that, fish stocks, already severely stressed, will crash and take decades to recover.

“This sea is a bit like a large bowl of soup with at least six nations each sipping through straws. If one nation sips slowly, the others will take up the slack,” McManus said. “The only way to achieve sustainability is via cooperative agreement … China alone cannot do it. There is no reason to believe that they will oppose joining a new, more regionally focused fishery and environmental sustainability organization.”

A manta ray in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

“A rules-based framework”

Cooperative action including China is not a new idea. For two decades, ASEAN has sought to win China’s agreement to a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. At last, in August 2017, the foreign ministers of China and the 10 ASEAN members endorsed a plan for substantive negotiations on a COC, with the first objective being “To establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.” The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, although Beijing once again gave no indication that it is prepared to accept binding constraints on its behavior.

Neither maritime scientific research nor environmental protection is specifically mentioned in the one-page plan. However, these are believed to be among the activities subsumed under the catchall phrase “promotion of practical maritime cooperation,” according to an analysis of the plan by Singapore-based researcher Ian Storey,

Assuming that’s so, the authors of the Blueprint seek to persuade ASEAN’s COC negotiators to aim high. “What we hoped to do is lay down a marker, to prove that it is possible to negotiate fair, legal and workable agreements,” said Poling of CSIS. “Our blueprint on fisheries and environmental cooperation … is detailed, entirely feasible, and in accordance with both international law and domestic law in the relevant countries.”

As the ASEAN states begin what likely will be protracted wrangling over details of the long-elusive COC, the Blueprint’s authors hope the negotiators will give priority to agreement on a fisheries chapter with teeth. These include the creation of a collective fisheries management organization, agreement to set aside ecosystem-based fisheries zones covering remaining reefs vital to the health of regional fish stocks, and real resolve to fast track their implementation. Would China agree if, as the CSIS group hopes, ASEAN presses a proposal along these lines?

In reply to Mongabay’s e-mail query, Nong Hong, director of the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, D.C, was non-committal. The Blueprint, she said, “is not really something new. We (including scholars from China, Taiwan and other claimants) have been discussing fishery conservation and management issues for years.”

Carl Thayer, an emeritus political scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has tracked the ASEAN-China discussions on an SCS Code of Conduct for over two decades. Judging by Beijing’s past behavior, he said he doubts China’s sincerity, pointing to Beijing’s disregard for the UNCLOS Tribunal Award and its continual militarization of reefs and islands it occupies in the South China Sea.

And yet, Thayer told Mongabay, the elements of an agreement are at hand. Beijing has achieved its goal of effective hegemony over the SCS expanse. It has ambitious plans for building infrastructure and alliances in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean region to implement president Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” concept. Continued bullying of China’s neighbors around the SCS puts other would-be development partners on guard. Common sense for China, Thayer pointed out, lies in the direction of striking an agreement with ASEAN on cooperation in the South China Sea that reflects current realities and its own interest, so it can move on.

An underwater view of the reef at Layang Layang Atoll in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner /

David Brown, a retired American diplomat, is now a frequent writer on contemporary Vietnam and its neighborhood. His e-mail address is

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