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Maritime Cooperation in the South China Sea: Time to Reach Out for Fisheries

2020-11-10 16:10:41       source:NISCSS

Speech at the Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance, 6, Nov.


The South China Sea has been at the center of concern in the international community due to its strategic and geopolitical importance. No single issue might be more eminently dangerous than the South China Sea issue to drive regional tension and great-power rivalry.


Maritime cooperation is key to China and ASEAN’s shared destiny and to preserving peace in the region before disputes are resolved. Stability in the South China Sea is bound to suffer from the continuing differences of views on territorial dispute issues. It is common understanding to better start with maritime cooperation on a sectoral basis, such as marine environmental protection, the safety of navigation and search and rescue at sea. Cooperation and regime building in non-traditional security sectors can also build trust and confidence and spill over into co-operation on traditional security issues.


China has been pushing maritime cooperation projects with ASEAN member States for the past decades. In 2011, China established the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund valued at RMB 3 billion, established a new platform for cooperation, and it was officially launched in the year of 2015. In 2013, during his visit to Southeast Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping shared that China hopes to vigorously develop a maritime partnership with ASEAN in a joint effort to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century.


In April 2016, China and ASEAN member States pledged to implement achievements of "early harvest," including "the Hotline platform among Senior Officials of the MFA of China and ASEAN countries in Response to Maritime Emergencies," "the China -ASEAN hotline platform for maritime search and rescue". In The 13th Senior Officials Meeting that August, all parties reviewed and approved " the Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the ASEAN Member States and China in Response to Maritime Emergencies" and "a Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea".


In terms of “hard” security issues, in 2018, the China-proposed joint military exercise was held August 2-3 in the form of table-top exercise at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. On October 22, the first-ever organized joint maritime exercise was held in Zhanjiang, involving more than 1000 personnel and eight vessels. Maritime security cooperation requires quite a leap of faith and it takes time and collective effort for China and ASEAN member States to achieve. In recent years communications hotlines between respective foreign ministries have been introduced and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) introduced. CUES is intended to reduce incidents between the navies (and eventually the coast guards) of littoral states. In recent years, CUES was also expanded to include all members of the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), a forum that consists of Asean countries’ defence ministers and their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.


A framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) was agreed in May 2017 — an incredible 25 years after the need for one was first acknowledged. The implementation of its predecessor (the 2002 Declaration of Conduct) continues to be discussed. A number of constructive proposals remain on its multilateral cooperation agenda. On July 31, 2019, China and the ASEAN countries completed the first reading of the COC single draft negotiating text ahead of the schedule. Through the first reading, the text is streamlined so that the framework and essential elements of the COC become clearer and the structure more reasonable. Due to Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, negotiations postphoned. However all negotiation members are hoping to reopen when the pandemic is under countrol.


The South China Sea is known as a biodiversity-reach sea supporting abundant fisheries, which is vital to all the economies in the surrounding areas. It contains 3365 species of marine fishes and in terms of total annual marine production it’s one of the 5 most productive fishing zones in the globe, holds 12 percent of global fishing catches. To bordering States of the South China Sea, especially the claimant States, the fisheries resources are crucial for supporting livelihoods, export trade and food security. However, fisheries resources are under great pressure, given that fish stocks have declined dramatically from the 1950s by about 70-90 percent.


Fisheries serves dual capability to either trigger disputes or even conflicts between States or to provide a means of integration between States. In the South China Sea, so far there is no multilateral regional fisheries management organization that can manage fisheries in the disputed waters.


Since 2018, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) has initiated a project -- Common Fisheries Resource Analysis (CFRA), inviting policy makers and experts from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, to identify practical steps that will ensure the sustainability of South China Sea fisheries management. The purpose is to leverage regional expertise and information to produce a shared evidence-based update on the status of key fish stocks. So far 6 workshops have been conducted, and experts from the above five counteis have decided a common methodology and the starting point--Skipjack Tuna assessment. Hopefully, it will also pioneer a cooperative approach to collectively manage shared resources in a way that protects environmental sustainability, enhances economic prosperity, and promotes peace.


In the long run, maintaining peace and stability requires collective efforts from regional powers as well as all user States.For China and ASEAN member States, deepening maritime cooperation will not only help built trust but also tackle common maritime threats. It will be easier to continue current ongoing projects as introduced above, to reach out the fisheries resources, to help from-the-bottom-up maritime cooperation projects to go further. It will take considerable time, and it will be eventually worthy.

Yan Yan is Director of the Research Center of Oceans Law and Policy at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.