By: James Borton

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”