Marine environmental security in the South China Sea

Australia should lead a marine environmental security initiative in the South China Sea, acting as a mediator between claimant states in forming a policy framework for the region where marine environmental security is the focus.

In recent years, disputed territorial claims over the South China Sea has led to increased geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific. While sovereignty has been the paramount issue, much of the political tension and conflict has also concerned from marine environmental degradation and the depletion of fisheries and the natural resources, on which many Indo-Pacific states rely. As active upholder of the rules and norms underpinning regional security, Australia should lead an initiative in, primarily to ensure and enhance stability, peace, and maritime environmental security in the Indo-Pacific.

The South China Sea is important

The South China Sea is arguably one of the most strategically important maritime territories, rich in both oil and gas resources. It is estimated that 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil lie within the region. In addition, maritime trade routes flow through the South China Sea and a large number of states rely on fisheries. The South China Sea plays an important role in providing both economic security and food security. It is estimated more than 3 million people rely on the fisheries in these waters. Most developing Asia Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia, states seek to protect their immediate marine environment and fisheries since it is the state’s main source of income and is vital for their economic prosperity. The current South China Sea’s environment is rapidly deteriorating, and this particularly impacts the stability of small developing states and threatens the livelihoods of its people.

The rapid decline of the Marine Environment

In the past few years, China has been claiming sovereignty over a large part of the South China Sea, including the surrounding islands and small features that were previously considered other states or international. The Chinese authorities have rapidly engaged in the build-up of military bases, airstrips, ports, and surface to air missiles, in addition to naval patrols within the region. The build-up of these bases has negatively impacted the surrounding coral reefs and marine life. Other claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines have also engaged in such activities. In the past decade, due to overfishing, marine pollution and lack of proper management of fisheries, fish stocks have fallen by 66 to 75 percent. In addition to giant clam harvesting and dredging, with over 160 square kilometers of coral reefs having been destroyed. This highlights the rate in which the South China Sea’s marine environment is declining, and this is both due to sovereignty disputes and a lack of effective marine governance by multiple claimant states. 

There is a greater need for cooperation between states to implement sustainable marine environmental protection policies. This could be achieved with a non-claimant state such as Australia, that would be able to act as a mediator or neutral party in leading this cooperation. In addition, there is a need for focus on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development 2030 Agenda, in particularly Goal 14: Life below Water, “To conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” Funding is also crucial in the development of sustainable practices; therefore, states should collaborate with regional forums such as the United Nations and other platforms to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific and a brighter future for the region.

Why Australia should lead this

Despite not being a claimant state and no direct fisheries interests in the South China Sea Australia should lead this marine environmental security initiative. That said, Australia has a stake in South China Sea’s stability as well as the prosperity of its neighbours that do rely on that marine environment. Australia has the potential to act as mediator between claimant states. However, Australia does have ties with the US, namely the Australia-US Alliance and with declining US-China relations, the situation is slightly complicated. Despite this, Australia pushing for greater focus on this issue would be more likely to influence China’s actions since it would not be viewed as US-led but more of an unbiased attitude, where the collaboration of efforts would be primarily for Marine Environmental Protection

Australia’s past successes in fostering marine environmental protection lends diplomatic experience to a South China Sea initiative. In 2009, Australia engaged in a partnership between Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands in the Coral Triangle Initiative. There is currently over 3 million hectares of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) established and effectively managed, with a massive reduction in overfishing and marine pollution. Australia has also engaged in Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) and has played a significant role in the Arafura and Timor Seas Ecosystems Action, managing issues related to marine pollution, sustainable fisheries and climate change. 

Building mutual trust

To successfully lead, one major challenge Australia faces is China’s acceptance of its role. In the last decade, Australia-China relations has been considerably strong both economically and politically. However, due to emerging human security threats there has been increasing tension between states, and with other factors such as trade wars and political conditions, this friction has increased. Most recently, Australia-China relations has deteriorated due to Australia’s inquiry on COVID-19, and tariffs on Australian barley among other things. Despite this, a push by Australia for greater cooperation toward Marine Environmental Protection has the potential to build mutual trust again between Australia-China. 

Cooperation is key 

Given the complicated nature of the South China Sea dispute, a resolution in the short-term is unlikely.  Therefore, the primary focus should be on environmental protection and fisheries sustainability. If Sovereignty disputes were placed to the side, this would allow for stability in the Indo-Pacific. Australia should lead this initiative since this approach has great potential and through sincere cooperation, it may be an important step in both mending ties between Australia and China and achieving a peaceful resolution towards the South China Sea Dispute.

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