ASEAN and China must cooperate to protect the South China Sea

Marine environmental protection (MEP) in the South China Sea may hold the key to building mutual trust and confidence among claimant countries. ASEAN together with China may form a cooperative management framework with MEP as one of its main pillars.
One year after the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on the demarcation of the South China Sea in July 2016, invalidating China’s so-called nine-dash line, the maritime disputes remain a critical security issue, effectively testing the unity and centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Eager to contain an escalation in the disputes, China and Asean finalized in May a draft framework of the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.
Despite the collective efforts of ASEAN and China to ease tensions, the marine environment in the disputed waters continues to be problematic, without an overarching marine environmental regime framework. The PCA’s ruling on the South China Sea acknowledged the irreparable destruction of the coral reef ecosystem due to clam-coral poaching, overfishing, land reclamation and illegal fishing activities in the South China Sea. But marine environment protection remains the most ignored aspect of the regional maritime disputes. The issue of MEP can serve as a starting point of constructive dialogue for cooperation among claimant states with ASEAN as the main driver. Why ASEAN and China must agree on MEP. The South China Sea is one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, hosting 76% of the world’s coral species and 37% of reef-fish species. According to the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre, each decade 30% of seagrass, 16% of mangrove, and 16% of live coral cover are lost due to unsustainable exploitation by the more than 270 million people living along its coast. Marine scientists estimated that human activity had destroyed 16,200 hectares of coral reefs, nearly 10% of the total reefs in the South China Sea. Filipino marine scientist Professor Edgardo Gomez estimated that the current rate of reef destruction means that the South China Sea littoral states suffer US$5.7 billion a year in potential economic loss. The transboundary impact of degrading marine ecosystem in the South China Sea should not be underestimated. Evidently, while a regional regime governing MEP in the South China Sea may be difficult to achieve due to the disputes, a regional cooperative strategy to identify a course of action is necessary. It should be premised firstly on the understanding reached in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea: “Pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the Parties concerned may explore or undertake cooperative activities. These may include the following: a. marine environmental protection; b. marine scientific research.
Secondly, The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 encourages member states to “[p]romote cooperation for the protection, restoration and sustainable use of coastal and marine environment, respond and deal with the risk of pollution and threats to marine ecosystem and coastal environment … ”
Individually, since the 1990s, Southeast Asian countries have designated MPAs along their coastlines, but none so far have extended their MPAs to the South China Sea. ASEAN signed the ASEAN Declaration on Heritage Parks and Reserves in 1984 and agreed to designate 11 protected areas to be inscribed as the ASEAN Heritage Parks which also include coral reef and marine protected areas.

Julius Cesar I. Trajano is associate research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has a master’s degree in Asian studies.

Source: Asia Times