South China Sea Needs Science Diplomacy Policy

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Despite White House efforts to deny well-established climate change reports, coupled with US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, most might question the wisdom of laying down a wild card in the midst of a scheduled high-stakes summit between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Yet science may prove to be the lynchpin for bringing about cooperation rather than competition not only among the claimant nations in the contested South China Sea but also between Washington and Beijing.

After all, science has always been a key part of the US diplomacy arsenal when informing foreign policy. The territorial claims among China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei in the turbulent waters of the South China Sea remain a serious threat to the political and ecological security of Southeast Asia. As such, environmental degradation remains at the center of South China Sea scientific policy conversations, and for an increasing number of policy shapers and scientists there’s an urgent need to address acidification, biodiversity loss, regional impacts of climate change, coral reef destruction, and fishery collapse.

Enter science diplomacy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) defines the role of science as being used to inform foreign policy decisions, promoting international scientific collaborations, and establishing scientific cooperation to ease tensions between nations.

During the Cold War divide, scientific cooperation was used to build bridges of cooperation and trust. It’s now time that the South China Sea becomes a sea that binds rather than divides. This has become alarmingly visible in the wake of the recent ferocious typhoons that have washed through central Vietnam, drowning 61 and possibly capsizing some planned events in Da Nang, host city for this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

What’s clear is that there are strong ties among scientists across Southeast Asia and China, due in part to a series of international scientific projects, conferences, and training workshops, such as those in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s associated with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s South China Sea Fisheries Development and Coordination program. The United Nations Environmental Program and Global Environmental Facility sponsored a South China Sea environmental analysis and management project between 2002 and 2009, and efforts are underway to initiate a follow-up project.

In addition, the Philippines and Vietnamese marine scientists are quietly reviving conversations about the Joint Oceanographic Marine Scientific Research Expeditions (JOMSRE) last conducted in 2005 and organized between the Philippine Maritime and Ocean Affairs Center (MOAC) and the Vietnamese Institute of Oceanography.

These proposed science collaborative measures are essential in the face of rampant overfishing and coral reef degradation that is occurring across the South China Sea, in part because of the conflicting territorial claims have made ecological analyses and management actions difficult. There are already strong indications of impending collapses of fisheries and potential species extinctions.

No doubt with the imminent threat associated with North Korea’s nuclear tests, Trump’s Asia advisors are paddling fast in the choppy diplomatic waters to come up with new narratives on how to convince China to reign in this clear and present danger. However, Xi’s expanded role as seen in their recently-held party congress makes it less likely that the US will secure any further commitments from Beijing to address North Korea.

Michael Crosby, President and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida believes that the US could improve international relations through marine science partnerships. Like other scientists, he understands that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) contains specific articles that apply to marine science and technology.

“A renewal of JOMSRE would be quite positive, although the changing political dynamics related to the Spratlys and other islands and reefs in the region over the last several years will likely create a bit more challenging environment for an international research survey,” Crosby said in an email.

The Red Sea Marine Peace Park Cooperative Research, Monitoring and Resource Management (RSMPP) serves as an excellent model for improving international relations and building capacity through marine science cooperation. For example, the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel enabled the development of a bi-national Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba.[/nextpage]

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This became a crucible for successfully bringing together scientists, policy shapers and the public in a once contested trans-boundary water issue.

E. William Colglazier, editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy, makes a compelling case for how “science diplomacy and science advice have otherwise helped the world deal with the challenge in critical ways.” He believes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has strengthened science policy interface with the diplomatic community.

And although Vaughn Turekian, the Science and Technology adviser to the Secretary of State, has been quietly on the sidelines since the arrival of the new administration, as a scientist in geophysics he understands the benefits of utilization of science and technology to advance US diplomacy.

To be clear, the stakes are getting higher in the turbulent South China Sea, not only in terms of Beijing’s militarization of reclaimed islands but also the prospects of a fisheries collapse. This should weigh heavily on all claimant nations and especially the US. Challenges around food security and renewable fish resources are fast becoming a hardscrabble reality for more than fishers. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity warned that it could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly headed towards extinction by mid-century.

Trump’s Asia advisors might be best served by noting that Chinese scientists have been engaged in science diplomacy in polar regimes for the past three years. This includes cooperative fishing regulations research and especially their participation in multilateral diplomacy efforts in the central Arctic Ocean. Although China’s role is still limited, they are preparing to play a substantial role in good governance in the Arctic.

It’s not too late for the US to take the scientific high ground and renew the legacy of science diplomacy since America has the talent of so many remarkable scientists and technical expertise to assist the contested region with its present and future environmental issues. After all, science initiatives are more widely accepted as efforts to solve global issues that require contributions from all players even if they have been dealt bad hands in the international relations arena. On Nov. 3, the White House did sign off on a report that attributes climate change and global warming to humanity. The report, by 13 federal agencies, is in direct contradiction to the President’s action pulling the US out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change earlier this year.

Most littoral states have adopted marine protected areas to address the rapid decline of fisheries and death of coral reefs. What science tells us is that MPAs play a vital role in the development of the marine economies since they improve the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities and also serve as an excellent directed science policy model.

Although the US is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Washington can recommend that sovereignty claims be set aside in treaties implementing freezes on claims and claim-supportive activities, as has been done in the Antarctic. These and other natural resource management tools could be used far more effectively to secure fisheries and biodiversity, and also promote sustainable tourism.

While President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he fully intends to protect and promote the US fossil-fuel industry, he may find some new diplomacy card to pull from a diminishing deck to reverse a position and deal his brand of science diplomacy while in Asia.

James Borton is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel and a nonresident Fellow at The Stimson Center in Washington. He is the editor of “Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post Hague Ruling” and “The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises”[/nextpage]