The South China Sea has been the focus of much tension of late. There have been Vietnam’s live fire drills in the Paracel Islands (which are also claimed by Taiwan), the joint military exercises between the US and the Philippines in the region, the presence of a Chinese fleet around the Pacific islands and Taiwan’s blue-water naval drills.
In the wake of all this activity, some of the countries in the South China Sea region met in Bali late last month and agreed on a set of guidelines to to mitigate conflict. On the surface it appeared that a step had been made in the right direction for a peaceful resolution of the tensions, but US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying that the US had strategic interests in the South China Sea, joined Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin in accusing China of double standards, making the situation as precarious as ever.
The South China Sea combines various geological and climatic conditions, with an abundance of biodiversity and rich natural resources. The coral reefs around the large number of islands, islets and their peninsulas, together with the monsoons and marine currents, all provide excellent conditions for a rich marine ecology, giving the sea one of the greatest concentrations of natural habitats and breeding grounds for marine life, and making it one of the most valuable fishing grounds in the world.
The populations of Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines all rely on this region for fishing, shipping, marine oil and natural gas exploration, tourism and tourism-related jobs. Following the establishment of the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the various countries in the area have separately claimed economic zones in the area and attempted to -control and develop the natural resources in them.
So who has the right to administer the South China Sea and control the natural resources there?
I would say the answer to that is the true inhabitants of the area, the various organisms living in the South China Sea. What the countries in the region should absolutely not be doing is making pronouncements about sovereignty or developing or arguing only about their own interests. Instead, they should be working together to maintain the autonomy of the region itself, protecting their most valuable asset: a sustainable natural resource.
First and foremost, this will depend on putting aside the various points of contention and concentrating instead on issues that everyone can agree on, thereby promoting a harmonious environment with no borders that will both be useful and will promote regional peace. And with this, all the countries concerned can work together in a constructive way.
The number of people living along coastal areas has grown and fishing techniques have improved. The South China Sea is shared by all these areas, and consequently overfished, which has led to the exhaustion of fish stocks. The countries in the region could use this as a starting point, working together on conservation and fishing resource management, and from there, go on to cooperation in other areas.
For example, more than half of the world’s 10 largest container ports are located on coastlines in the South China Sea and more than half the world’s traffic of commercial ships and oil tankers, in terms of tonnage, passes through its waters every year.