South China Sea: It's Not Just About the Rocks, It's Also About the Fish

A Vietnamese fishing boat. Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

Beijing’s bad behavior is damaging the region’s common spaces.

The South China Sea remains politically roiled. It has been almost a month since the UN Tribunal’s announcement. Chinese rhetoric attacks both court and verdict, military demonstrations continue and ASEAN’s foreign ministers issued a decidedly equivocal statement following their meeting. Secretary of State John Kerry’s request for a reference to the decision of the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration failed. China’s diplomatic efforts to moot the verdict, and by extension moot the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), achieved an early success. This dispute now enters a new—and not especially encouraging—phase.

China’s nationalist ambitions mandate the recovery of lost territory, specifically including islands, rocks and low-tide elevations deemed—by China—to be Chinese from ancient times. The July 12 judgment by the UN Tribunal was a stunning rebuke to this goal.

All nations on the East and South China Sea littoral and the United States are directly affected. But the stakes of the affected nations vary widely, as do capabilities and vulnerabilities. Standing alone there is little hope that the nations of the region can come to an acceptable, viable and enduring solution. The gaps among various national interests, stakes and capabilities must somehow be bridged.

The United States seeks to fly, sail and operate our forces wherever international law allows, and peaceful settlement of disputes. Japan is tied to the United States by virtue of our strong alliance, a geography that defines the East China Sea, current issues there, Chinese air and sea territorial intrusions and China’s continued vilification.

Directly opposed to this is China’s often stated “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and . . .  sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.” This is now part of their nationalistic narrative demanding reversal of past violations of Chinese sovereignty.

Smaller nations along the South China Sea littoral, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are vitally concerned with free and secure access to traditional fishing areas in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. For most, fish is the major source of protein for growing populations. The smaller nations fear losing their major source of food. Potential oil and gas reserves, although unproven, add even more contention. Asia recalls well that resource competition leads to conflict.

An effective international strategy to protect free and secure access for all requires some unifying principle or goal capable of gaining support from the ASEAN nations, others along the East and South China Sea littoral, the United States, Japan, international organizations and public opinion. Prevention of a catastrophic collapse of the East and South China Sea fisheries may be part of such a unifying principle. An effective strategy, carefully and skillfully coordinated and executed, can ensure that the recent court decisions become part of a trend. We must make it part of a “line” and not a discrete event, a “dot,” and thus quickly forgotten.

A Memorable July

July was a remarkable month. The court’s judgment was not the only disappointment for China. The Republic of Korea (ROK) agreed to the deployment of U.S. Theater High-Altitude Area Defense capability despite vigorous objections from China and North Korea. The ROK took this action in response to the most recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests. The ROK also closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the few and certainly the most significant instruments of cooperation between north and south. In response China threatened economic retaliation. In Korea, President Park promised government support to any Korean business damaged by Chinese punitive economic actions.

On July 12, the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) announced its unanimous decision in the case filed by The Philippines over two years ago. Included in the decision:

• The Nine Dash Line was rejected as a basis for South China Sea claims

• The court rejected the vast majority of Chinese claims and real-world behavior in the South China Sea

• China was found in violation of the rights of Philippine fishermen

• China was found to have “…caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment”. This included the mining of coral that experts deem will take centuries to recover, if ever.

• China was cited for providing armed protection for vessels engaged in illegal harvesting of marine life

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