By: James Borton

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.