The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is based on natural geographic features and applies a scientific approach to preserving humanity’s common human heritage. It is the only system of international law which defines the character and status of maritime zones, together with the roles and responsibilities of coastal states. Since 1994, UNCLOS has also been the customary mechanism for the resolution of maritime disputes.
Notwithstanding the provisions of UNCLOS, however, the prevailing disputes of the South China Sea (SCS) have not been resolved through the application of geographic and scientific facts; instead, these considerations have been overshadowed by political and military implications. There are significant difficulties in applying UNCLOS in the SCS. First, China claims long-established historical rights, but the only evidence Beijing has is a map made in 1945. Second, disagreement persists on how to define UNCLOS legal zones, due to the complex semi-enclosed waters of the SCS. In fact, such legal rulings as have been made under UNCLOS (including an arbitration award in 2016 between the Philippines and China) have not been adhered to by the parties concerned. Third, legitimate maritime scientific survey activities have been conflated with naval operations. Fourth, offshore resource exploration and exploitation have antagonized states with overlapping claims, especially where commercial companies from third parties are involved.
Hopefully, however, innovative developments in marine technologies will allow a comprehensive determination of the objective scientific situation which will prove acceptable to all parties. If UNCLOS maritime zones can be unequivocally delineated, this should facilitate the best solutions to existing disputes. The present state of marine sciences and naval technologies is unfortunately inadequate for this purpose, and there are currently no discussions on how to establish a convergence of science and technologies to fully characterize the natural geographic features which UNCLOS relies upon. Clearly, this is an urgent task, and until it is addressed the maritime stability and good order of the SCS will continue to be destabilized by the failure to integrate the coastal states into a common maritime community.
Climate change is a particular challenge for which innovative developments in science and technology will be critical. New advances will need vital in dealing with the new maritime crises which are already happening, and which will intensify in the future. For instance, rising sea levels are one factor prompting China to construct vast artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. In addition, record hot temperatures have changed fishing zones leading to illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, causing degradation of fish stocks. Another example are increasingly frequent and violent storms that threaten littoral areas including heavily populated cities. Finally, marine environmental pollution imperils the ecosystems of submerged reefs and shoals and uninhibited islands, exacerbating SCS disputes.
So far, however, scientific and technological developments have tended to increase tensions in the SCS by facilitating provocative activities. Thus, China’s synchronized construction of more than 2,000 acres of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago used advanced-design self-propelled dredging ships, and the destructive IUU overfishing in the SCS relies upon novel side-scanning sensors. Scientific surveying has also been used as a justification for intrusive naval operations exceeding the necessary collection of hydrographic and physical oceanic data essential to the safety of shipping. Indeed, superfluous naval deployments near the territorial seas or maritime zones claimed by disputing parties are particularly detrimental to the maritime peace and stability of the SCS. Most obviously, the U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), which entail surface transits, overflights, and unknown underwater operations through contested waters have been greatly provocative.
To stabilize the security environment in the SCS, the application of innovative science and technology is now essential.
First, the natural features required to respect UNCLOS rights and entitlements in the SCS must be preserved. Developments in marine science and technology should not be used to change or confuse the geographical status quo, and all such activities should be limited to the needs of hydrography, metrology, and oceanography.
Second, innovative science and technology should be used to establish objective information about the SCS, rather than to justify maritime claims and buttress legitimacy. Thus, China’s claim that by planting vegetables on its recently constructed artificial islands this somehow legally renders them “natural islands” is a clear and blatant abuse of science. Equally preposterous is the claim that these constructed islands therefore merit a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, including twelve miles of territorial sea.
Third, advanced military science and technology should not be used for political purposes. In particular, strategic competition between China and the United States has prompted both to conduct coastal surveys for littoral naval surface and underwater operations. There are also the U.S.-led FONOPs intended to challenge China’s unilateral claims. These include a straight baseline around the Paracel Islands and putative territorial seas based on low-tide-elevation or submerged features such as Mischief Reef, thus restricting the right of innocence passage. None of these activities are helpful in resolving disagreements among the parties involved in SCS disputes. Moreover, disparities between the naval capabilities of the two regional superpowers and other disputing parties, likewise between their maritime scientific and naval technologies, provokes general resentment and bad feelings, further destabilizing the region.
So if a more stable security environment is ever to be established in the SCS, then the disputing parties need to move beyond their security architecture as it currently exists, based on purely upon matters of legality, and instead take into account the objective scientific and geographic facts. In preparing for a future of climate change, biodiversity loss, technological disruption and growing inequality, there are many issues which need to be considered.
First, the future of the SCS depends upon the development of marine scientific and naval technologies. The present situation can be transformed by improved maritime scientific and technological cooperation, not to mention by safe and free navigation through the uncharted and disputed sea zones of the SCS, but all of this will be possible only if it is based upon a foundation of common knowledge and shared experience. This implies that national maritime military-civil scientific and technological information will need to be shared with allies, partners and others.
Second, future developments in marine science and technology are expected to impact the disputes in the SCS, in particular the naval confrontation between the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the U.S. Navy. The SCS disputes have been focused around international legal regimes, with little discussion of how the development of how marine science and technology can contribute to solutions. If China’s coast guard is concerned only with domestic and international law enforcement operations, then why does it need to expand so rapidly, and why with such large vessels, one displacing more than 10,000 tons?
Third, sharing the fruits of marine science and naval technology with neighbors will be politically challenging, but essential. Such information sharing is the most important tool the SCS has available to stabilize the security environment, by building resilient legal arrangements into the maritime infrastructure and the blue economy. One scientific expert suggests that advanced pyrolysis technologies which melt down floating plastic rubbish in the SCS to produce oil and gas provide a good example. Commercial satellite images can also help avoid the spread of dangerous misinformation by providing evidence of compliance with international laws and multilateral agreements, such as DOC 2002 and COC 2018. An earlier agreement to make use of such images might perhaps have forestalled China’s artificial island construction project in the Spratly archipelago.
Fourth, the weakest and most vulnerable coastal states of the SCS are clearly disadvantaged by their unequal access to marine science and technology. Their fishing activities, marine scientific surveys, and other maritime activities are impacted by this imbalance, and the SCS community needs to adopt policies and strategies to deal with infrastructural and institutional limitations which are a disproportionate burden for these countries.
Fifth, to establish a comprehensive and cooperative foundation of science and technology which can support peace and good order in the SCS, the people of the region need to be involved. Public trust and public confidence are crucial, as well as a basic understanding of risk and uncertainty. Without such a popular buy-in there will be little chance of effective political and international management of future crises, and misinformation will exacerbate the current SCS disputes.
Sixth, many important SCS quantitative figures are currently contested. These include, among others: the volume carried by the international shipping lanes through the SCS, the amounts of natural resources, and the scale of IUU fishing. These figures need to be accurately determined, so far as science and technology allows, and correlated with the natural geography of the region, not concealed or manipulated for strategic and military purposes. Using misleading figures for natural resources is unhelpful for climate change planning and could result in costly and inefficient exploitation.
Marine sciences and naval technologies need to be redirected to comprehensively characterize the natural features and environment of the SCS. Only by establishing a mutually agreed set of facts about geography, geology, biology, etc., can maritime good order and stability be secured in the SCS. The current focus on legal issues is counterproductive, allowing false or misleading narratives to be propagated for political and strategic purposes, and offering no hope of ultimate resolution. Closer cooperation and capacity-building among the regional stakeholders to create an objective picture of the SCS is much more likely to lead to constructive outcomes.
Captain Sukjoon Yoon, Republic of Korea Navy retired, is a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs (KIMA).