By: David Brown

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 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 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).