By the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue
The South China Sea represents both a potential geopolitical flashpoint and a looming ecological disaster. The rich fishing grounds are estimated to contribute 12 per cent1,2 of the global fish catch and employ more than 3.7 million people.3 Yet there has been an alarming decline in fish stocks in the region – with stocks fished down to a fraction of their original levels.4
If nothing is done, this decline is predicted to continue over the coming decades with serious implications for food security. While the exact cause of this rapid ecological decline is still being explored, it is clear that the ecosystem is under severe strain.
There is an ongoing struggle over which states have the right to control access to and resources of the South China Sea. Maritime rights or sovereignty over various features in South China Sea are asserted by a range of states including Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Viet Nam. More than a mere dispute over resources, countries see defending their rights as essential to protecting their national security and affirming their national honour.
Despite the rising hostilities, the interconnected nature of the South China Sea’s fish stocks means that regional states need to work together to prevent further decline. There have been many calls for increased cooperation, including from the regional states themselves.5 However, sovereignty disputes have obstructed the development of regional institutions that could enable cooperation.
To overcome this impasse, scientists and governments from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Viet Nam have been meeting regularly since 2018 to identify practical ways to work together. This process has been supported by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an independent and neutral organisation with the mission to prevent, mitigate, and resolve violent conflict.
Early on, it became clear that the first step towards cooperation was to gain consensus on the state of fish stocks in the region. While there was significant expertise available, the evidence was held by each country and rarely shared – which, in turn, kept officials from making decisions about how best to protect and ensure the sustainability of fish stocks.
Over the course of five meetings between scientists, fisheries policy makers, diplomats and national security officials, a plan was developed to undertake a Common Fisheries Resource Analysis together – a voluntary, science-led and informal process.
This process crystalised the essential role of bilateral consultation during the cooperative process. Prior to convening participants from the five countries, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue first undertook detailed individual consultation with participants from each country. This helped ensure the meetings and overall process remained consistent with the priorities of each country and focused on what is politically possible.
As of early 2021, scientists from the five countries have selected a focus species (skipjack tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis), reviewed the available evidence and selected a common stock assessment method to assess the data. Scientists are now working within single-country groups to use this method to analyse their own data. The results of that analysis are then shared by the scientists with the other countries. This individual country focus and sequencing avoids countries having to share raw data, while allowing regional scientists to leverage their collective expertise and pool evidence to build a shared scientific consensus on the state of fish stocks. This consensus could provide a foundation for further cooperation by states at the official level.
The Common Fisheries Resource Analysis is a modest effort considering the scale of the South China Sea’s environmental challenges. Still, this relatively small step is important: the efforts are delivering scientific evidence to improve domestic policies. By combining the analysis among the five participating countries, fisheries policies have a stronger evidence base on which to make policy decisions.
The process is also developing norms and standards for regional cooperation. For example, the resource analysis process is building a group of scientists across the region that understands the same stock assessment method. It is also demonstrating the benefits of a regional scientific cooperation.
In an environment of low trust, the process aims to show that scientists are willing to cooperate, and that this type of cooperation has genuine benefits to all regional states.
Despite news headlines of hostilities, the experience of working on practical cooperation has shown that scientists around the region are willing to work together. Government officials are also starting to see this scientific cooperation as an important way to protect the South China Sea’s marine environment and build the trust necessary to ensure the South China Sea remains peaceful.
The authors would like to acknowledge the work and dedication of the scientists, experts and policy makers around the region that make this work possible.
Adviser/Project Manager, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue
Alex Douglas currently works on a range of HD projects across Asia on peace processes, forced migration, and communal violence. From 2013-2015, he managed HD’s project to reduce communal violence in Myanmar. Before joining HD, Alex was working for the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) where he focused on humanitarian emergencies, managing natural resources and social protection in both Australia and Indonesia. He was previously involved in monitoring violence and elections for the Carter Center, in Nepal and Liberia. Alex has two degrees from Flinders University in Australia, one in International Studies and the other a Bachelor of Laws and Legal Practice.