Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
While the Philippines’ chairmanship of Asean has come to an end without it having been able to capitalize on the opportunity to raise maritime issues in the South China Sea among the bloc members, it is not left with no card to play.
The world has witnessed an evolution of power in recent years. The new world order, as they say, makes it imperative for states to reevaluate their strategies and policies in matters that affect economics, security and politics. The importance of open sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in trade and geopolitics, at the least, has more than ever been emphasized. The South China Sea, an SLOC that is considered of strategic importance, has been subject to continuous exploration, reclamation and coastal development, with little or no regard to the impact on the environment.
On the security side of the South China Sea, the Philippines has a continuing strategic partnership with Japan, Australia and the United States. With the US pivot to Asia and the shift from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific,” there is a perception that America has somewhat, at least for a time, weakened its guarantees for Asia, specifically on the issue of the South China Sea. Nonetheless, with the “Quad,” or the Democratic Security Diamond, there is an affirmation that there will be credible deterrence against any security threat in the disputed waters.
A dialogue on achieving peace and security in the South China Sea per se would spur numerous points of contention. Such a dialogue might even prove to be futile. It is important to establish a common ground for dialogue and cooperation in the South China Sea.
In 2016, the ADR Institute published a study titled “Converging Fisheries in the South China Sea,” which opened the eyes of many on the rising environmental concerns there, and which might be the only common ground among states, whether claimant or not.
Indeed, other than the South China Sea having geopolitical value, it undoubtedly has immense biodiversity about which states ought to be concerned. As US Ambassador Sung Kim said in his opening remarks at “A Blueprint for Fisheries and Environmental Cooperation in the South China Sea,” a forum sponsored by the ADR Institute, “Preserving our ocean ecosystem and securing our peace upon it is of critical national, regional, and international importance.”
The South China Sea’s abundant marine ecosystem is critical for food and economic security and the livelihood of littoral states. Not only do states have the legal obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to protect and cooperate on fisheries management, it is also of extreme practical necessity. A plunge in marine diversity and environmental destruction is not the sole concern of a state; it affects the whole region. Thus, cooperation among claimant and nonclaimant states is essential.
Conflict in the South China Sea remains compelling. But putting aside conflicts based on territorial claims among claimant and nonclaimant states while finding a common ground is key to effective environmental management. In pursuing such a common ground, a few states may pose lack of confidence and suspiciously view the actions of others as another plot in the guise of environmental cooperation. In finding a common ground and a framework for environmental cooperation, a state’s vigilance remains indispensable. Yet, sincere cooperation among states will show that they can work together on an issue that is of critical importance: the preservation of the global commons.
While the traditional diplomatic approach may not prove to be effective in building strategic partnerships that will address disputes in the South China Sea — or at least just not yet — a discussion purely based on environmental management may be a good card to play in order to bring together not only like-minded democracies, but even nondemocracies. This may also be a good start for building and strengthening collaborative strategic partnerships with new allies and partners. Without cooperation concerning biodiversity management, both claimant and nonclaimant states clearly stand to lose.