The ruling states that both Filipino and Chinese fishermen have the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods in the surrounding territorial waters—a twelve-nautical-mile band—of the Scarborough Shoal, regardless of its sovereignty. Before Beijing sealed off the area during a two-month standoff in 2012, the waters had long been accessible to fishermen of both countries. With the ruling, China could reopen the waters to Filipino fishermen without detracting from its sovereign claims. This restoration of the status quo ante would ease tensions at little cost to Beijing.
In addition, in ruling that no land feature in the Spratly group qualifies as natural islands capable of generating EEZs, the tribunal has classified a sizable swath of the waters there as “high seas” in which all states enjoy “freedom of fishing.” That leaves space for all claimants to jointly manage fisheries.
Overfishing and ruinous fishing practices are devastating the South China Sea’s fish stocks, which “have fallen 70% to 95% from 1950s levels, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia” as cited in the Wall Street Journal. Cooperation in sustainable fishing would not only build trust, but also help ensure the sustainability of a vital source of food and income. If the South China Seas fisheries continue to be unregulated and unmanaged, the fish stocks could drop “by as much as an additional 59% from 2015 levels in the next 20 years.”
Contributing to a sustainable fishing regime would help China salvage its reputation. The tribunal ruled that China had failed to prevent its fishermen from using fishing practices that destroy the environment and poaching endangered species. China can establish itself as a guardian of the marine environment and biology by participating in or even leading cooperation on sustainable fishing and enforcement against illegal activities.
The tribunal’s ruling provided legal clarity. The attendant international attention lit a fire under China’s seat to show goodwill and reduces the daunting power asymmetry that faces the Philippines. An opportunity for collaboration is presented—in fishing, not drilling.
Xie Yanmei is Senior China Analyst of the International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organization. Adam Lee is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: Republic of the Philippines Navy ship BRP Dagupan City. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy