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Some Thoughts on Promoting Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea

2019-11-30 12:53:44       source:NISCSS

Opening Remarks at the CSARC Workshop on Regional Cooperation on Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea by Dr. Wu Shicun 

Dear CSARC board members,

Dear friends,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning,


Today, I would like to share with you my thoughts on cooperation marine environmental protection in the South China Sea.


Marine environmental and ecological protection has always been an important topic for regional cooperation. China and ASEAN countries have conducted active exploration regarding the establishment of a cooperative mechanism. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), signed by China and ten ASEAN member countries in 2002, also provides a good framework. It is a shared belief that regional cooperation is not only imperative for the sustainable development of the South China Sea, but also conducive to the management and control of maritime disputes.


With relevance to the South China Sea disputes and its current situation, I would like to share with you a bit more about my personal observation. Overall, the South China Sea has maintained peace and stability, with relevant disputes effectively managed. The consultation and negotiation process of the South China Sea Code of Conduct has been accelerated, and remarkable progress has been achieved in regional cooperation on the sea. However, these positive trends could be undermined by challenges from both outside powers and regional actors. The US has increased its military deployment in the South China Sea with the materialization of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. In the past three years, it has conducted more than 16 freedom of navigation operations against China. And about half of them were conducted in 2019 alone. Supported by other extra-regional powers such as Japan and the United Kingdom, the US has also formulated a forward military presence system with air, surface and subsurface capabilities put into place, so as to maintain intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and deterrence against China. Consequently, risks of unexpected encounters between Chinese and American military vessels and incidents in the South China Sea have significantly increased. In addition, unilateral actions of some claimant states in disputed waters have led to rising tensions.


Experiences of outside regions such as Europe and North America indicate that shelving disputes and seeking for functional cooperation is the best way to manage maritime differences as well as maintain peace and stability on the sea.  China and ASEAN countries should not only step up joint efforts in crisis management, but also strengthen cooperation in low sensitivity areas such as marine environmental protection. In this way we can avoid conflict, enhance political trust, and solidify the foundation of common interest. Meanwhile, self-restraint from unilateral fishing and oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities is also critically important.  


On the issues of sustainable development of regional fisheries, littoral countries of the South China Sea are also facing urgent needs of marine ecological protection. Statistics show that the estimated employment in fisheries in the South China Sea is more than 3.5 million people, and fishing resources are important source of protein for communities of this region. However, overfishing by littoral countries has led the fish stock down to 5-30% of its level in 1950s. Coral reefs are estimated to be declining at a rate of 16% per decade. And the biodiversity is facing grave challenges. Yet, those problems could not be solved by any country alone, regional cooperation is the only option.  


Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that states bordering a semi-enclosed sea like the South China Sea should cooperate with each other in the performance of their duties, such as the management and preservation of living resources, as well as the protection and preservation of the marine environment. The DOC has also demonstrated the consensus between China and ASEAN countries on the protection of marine environment. However, for a long time some claimant states tend to prioritize their maritime claims over the initiative of regional cooperation, and demonstrate their stance by unilateral fishing and oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas. Such unilateral activities not only pose a lot of difficulties to regional cooperation on environmental protection, but also intensify the competition over marine resources.


If we look at successful experiences of outside regions, marine protection is a common practice as part of the solution for managing maritime disputes. For example, in Europe, relevant countries voluntarily opt to limit their claims in order to pursue functional regional cooperation. After decades of exploration, cooperative mechanisms on marine environmental protection have been developed for the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea, in accordance with relevant multilateral instruments such as the Agreement for Cooperation in Dealing with Pollution of the North Sea by Oil, the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution (or the Barcelona Convention), and the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. Government bodies were also established to ensure effective operation of cooperative mechanisms and enforcement of relevant regulations and action plans. For example, in the Mediterranean sea, the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development was established in 1995 in line with Article 4 of the Barcelona Convention as an advisory body to contracting parties, to assist them in their efforts to integrate environmental issues in their socioeconomic programs and to promote sustainable development policies in the Mediterranean region. A Compliance Committee was also established in 2008 to advise and assist contracting parties in meeting their obligations under the Barcelona Convention and its Protocols and, to facilitate, promote, monitor and ensure such compliance.


China and ASEAN countries, based on consensus and existing practice, can draw on the successful experiences of other regions and explore a feasible path for international cooperation on marine ecological and environmental protection that fits the situation and meets the needs of the South China Sea. And in this regard, I would like to make following proposals.


First, it’s necessary to establish a new order of cooperation in the South China Sea based on rules and institutional arrangement. In the past three years, substantial progress has been made in the consultation and negotiation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct. In September this year, the first reading of the draft text was completed ahead of schedule, and the second reading has started. And the part of the draft text released to the international community shows that all parties concerned have made environmental protection in the South China Sea an important issue on the agenda. Therefore, coastal countries in the South China Sea should seize the opportunity of the COC consultation and negotiation, and make institutional arrangements for cooperation in marine environmental protection such as the mechanisms of intergovernmental consultation, expert working groups and cooperation model.


Second, it’s necessary to develop an institutionalized exchange platform for marine environmental protection in the South China Sea. Here, I would like to share some more about my thoughts on the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (or CSARC for short). As you may know that the CSARC was jointly launched by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies of China and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia in 2016, and incorporating another five influential think tanks from Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since its establishment, the CSARC has held a series of events such as annual programs of the China-ASEAN Academy on Ocean Law and Governance and the South China Sea-themed Sub-Forums under the framework of the Annual Conference of Boao Forum for Asia. And it aims to serve as a platform for dialogues and joint research among regional countries so as to foster regional cooperation in the South China Sea. The Center is currently headquartered in Hainan, China. And we could explore the possibility to set up a branch in Singapore or other Southeast Asian countries so that it can play a more active role. China and ASEAN countries could make use of the CSARC to conduct joint research on topics such as protection of biodiversity and endangered species, survey of fishery resources, and restoration of coral reefs. We should also strengthen capacity building for regional ocean governance by hosting relevant training programs and academic exchanges.


Third, it’s necessary to strengthen cooperation in fishery protection and marine aquaculture. China has been implementing a "summer fishing moratorium" in the South China Sea since 1999. Through domestic legislation, China prohibits fishermen from fishing in the South China Sea from May 1 to mid-August each year. However, for a long time, some claimant countries such as Vietnam oppose this fishery conservation plan, and even went further to step up their fishing activities. To foster sustainable development, curb overfishing and avoid conflicts caused by fishing activities in disputed waters, it is an urgent need for China and ASEAN countries to make effective institutional arrangements such as establishing seasonal fishing moratorium regimes, setting-up fishery conservation zones and reaching fishery management agreements. Meanwhile, littoral countries should also strengthen cooperation efforts in technology research and development as well as personnel training in marine aquaculture, and take aquatic products as the alternative for wild catch.


Fourth, it’s necessary to set up dedicated projects for marine environmental protection in the South China Sea based on the existing funding mechanisms for regional marine cooperation. China and ASEAN countries can make use of the "China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund" and the "Silk Road Fund" for cooperative projects on technology R&D and database development to deal with pressing issues related to biodiversity protection and deep water fish-farming.


Fifth, China and ASEAN countries should also establish consultation and cooperation mechanisms to address marine pollution such as oil spill and plastic waste. Take oil spill for example, the Sanchi incident in the East China Sea just set another alarm for littoral countries of the South China Sea, which is also a major route for energy transportation and home to many oil rigs. And any oil spill of a similar type will lead to unbearable damages to marine ecological environment which is already so vulnerable now. China and ASEAN countries should make institutional arrangements in advance for effective communication, coordination and cooperation to deal with potential threats of this kind.


Finally, I wish very fruitful discussion and every success of this workshop. Thank you!