Paper Friendship: Challenges Ahead on the South China Sea

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

ASEAN’s leaders will gather in Manila next week for the 30th ASEAN Summit. While the leaders and diplomats forge stronger bonds of friendship, those of us watching can only hope that the Summit and other scheduled meetings will help to move the region concretely forward. At the top of everyone’s mind is the South China Sea: What does the Philippines want to achieve with ASEAN and with the Dialogue Partners this year? What’s slated for the framework for the Code of Conduct? Will this framework even proceed to a binding and enforceable Code? How will we achieve our aims in line with our commitments in upholding international law?

The Philippines is no stranger to the difficulties in the South China Sea, and has even been at the forefront of these challenges. More pressingly, the challenge has evolved: Chinese vessels loiter in Benham Rise, construction on Scarborough Shoal is a looming possibility, and reports are emerging that Chinese Coast Guard vessels fired shots at Filipino fishermen in the Spratlys. How long can Southeast Asian governments paper over these difficulties in the name of friendly ties?

At this stage, there are more questions than there are answers. For this reason, the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi) will host a forum on April 25 entitled “The South China Sea: the Philippines, ASEAN, and their international partners.” In our view, the Philippines should not lose sight of its a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on Southeast Asia’s pressing political and security challenges.

Converging on the Fisheries

One of the under-examined issues concerning the West Philippine Sea is fisheries management. Fish and fisheries remain crucial to food security, livelihoods and export revenue to over about 2 billion inhabitants of the region. However, the overlapping territorial and maritime sovereignty claims among the coastal states continue hinder efforts to establish sustainable mechanisms for fisheries management as well as curb illegal and unsustainable fishing practices.

As the Philippines assumes chairmanship of ASEAN 2017, one of the goals is to translate its legal victory from the Arbitral Tribunal into workable policies that address the impending fisheries crisis not only on the national but also on the regional level. For an ADRi Special Study entitled “Converging on the Fisheries in the South China Sea,” Dr. Carmen Lagman of DLSU has analyzed the fisheries production-consumption patterns and transboundary management mechanisms, and proposed a path forward for the ASEAN coastal states to enhance fisheries management in the name of food security.

The Value of the South China Sea to Food and Job Security

Dr. Lagman explains the vitality of the South China Sea as a source of food and livelihoods: In 2015, a conservative estimate based on reported fisheries landings in the sea is about 12% of the total global catch. With the exception of Brunei Darussalam, all the other countries in the SCS are in the top 20 countries with the highest recorded fisheries catch in 2014.

The Sea could potentially yield 11-17 million tons in trade fisheries catch and USD 12-22 billion in annual fisheries landed value. This translates to over 3 million jobs associated with the fisheries. In fact, based on these values of the landed fisheries in 2012, total economic activity in the broader economy supported by fishing is estimated at US$ 66.7 billion.

Unsustainability of Local Fishing Practices

However, the indispensable value of the sea is imperiled by unsustainable practices of small- and large-scale industrial fisheries sector. Usually, commercial boats encroach into the so-called traditional fishing areas of small-scale fishermen, using trawls, ring nets and purse seins which practically harvest all organisms within the site of operations. As a result, small-scale fishermen usually complain of losing income while environmentalists point out to the irreversible damage that such commercial fishing tools and methods bring to the environment.

Moreover, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions for defining an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) have tremendously influenced the structure of fisheries policies in national and international arenas. It had the profound effects of: raising the contribution of fisheries to the national gross domestic product or GDP; bringing about a redistribution of benefits from fishing from distant water fishing fleets to the coastal states; and attracting greater investments into the fisheries sector.

Though total fisheries catch appears to be steadily increasing, there have already been differences in the quality of fish. Large predatory fish such as tuna and grouper are found less. They are increasingly being replaced by smaller fish that feed on zooplankton. This phenomenon dubbed as “fishing down the food web” reflects a dangerous, continuing trend of overfishing. Notably, pelagic fish stocks in East Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and southern China have been subject to overfishing since the late 1980s. No wonder their fishermen venture into the West Philippine Sea where productivity has not dwindled.

A Way Forward for the Philippines and Southeast Asia

Having won the case in the Arbitral Tribunal, the Philippines may seize the opportunity to promote the country’s fisheries management policy, and synergize its conservation efforts with those of its neighbors. Dr. Lagman proposes the following: the establishment of transboundary marine parks or areas of joint protection which seeks to declare the remaining healthy, resource-rich areas and habitats as “no-take zones” such as the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal; inclusion of other international policy instruments, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Reykjavik Declaration (2001), FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (1995), and World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002); and Agenda 21 (1992) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), aimed at encouraging regional cooperation on fisheries management in the South China Sea in our diplomatic efforts; and development of regional-level policies targeted toward small-scale fisheries.


Fisheries and other marine areas could be an starting point for greater technical cooperation between the Philippines and its neighbors. In these times, all cooperative options should be studied and exhausted. In the process, we must take advantage of our scientific knowhow to look at the dispute management (even if not resolution) in a creative and fresh light.

We are looking for concrete ways to use our knowledge of the law and the environment to help bridge the political problems that keep the Philippines from fully and sustainably exploiting its resources. These options will be for naught, however, if the Philippines does not demonstrate its principled commitment to the rule of law and show its leadership in ASEAN this year.

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