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Is ‘peace through conservation’ possible in the South China Sea?: insights on functional cooperation and environmental governance
☀ By: Joseph Mari I. Fabian
🗓 June 1, 2019

  • Functional cooperation in the South China Sea can be pursued through cross-sectoral collaboration in the environmental aspect of the dispute, a less sensitive area which can be a point of convergence among claimants.

  • The ‘Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park’ and ‘Red Sea Marine Peace Park’ are examples of initiative which promote functional cooperation as a means of territorial dispute management.

The South China Sea dispute has been predominantly viewed from the lens of geopolitics, with an undue focus on ‘who gets what’ over a portion of the Earth’s surface as determined by international competition. This comes at the expense environmental dimension of the dispute, which has since been relegated to matters of low politics: concerns that are, arguably, ‘not vital to the survival of the state’. However, once the irreversible environmental destruction of the South China Sea fully reveals its ugly face, it is only a matter of time that we are left with no choice but to recalibrate our priorities as maritime nations (given we still have the luxury of such choice by that time). The consequences are not reserved to claimant states; global ecology, and all that we derive from it for our national survival, are at stake. As Garret Hardin, author of the Tragedy of the Commons (1968) notes, contests over oceans “bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.” The remarks are still instructive today.

This grim reality drove environmental champions to push for a more ‘eco-centric’ way of territorial dispute management. For instance, Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) proposes a ‘Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park in the South China Sea’ which promotes joint marine scientific research and environmental management among rival claimants. The UN Environmental Programme also spearheaded in the 2000s functional cooperation in the SCS by convening countries to pursue marine conservation and resource mapping in the contested waters. Despite the glaring lack of support for this initiative, the ‘greens’ are commendable for elevating this functional cooperation through environmental governance in the SCS as a way forward. A sovereignty-driven mindset misses so much of the bigger picture.

A sea under siege
The biggest loser in the SCS dispute is the environment. An ecosystem comprising 1500 species of sponge, 600 and 3000 species of coral and fish, respectively, the South China Sea has produced 16.6 million tons of aquatic protein in the last few years alone, providing a viable source of food and livelihood to all populations dependent on its marine wealth. It also consistently ranks 4th among the world’s most prolific fishing zones, given its ideal conditions for marine life, and provides a sanctuary to seabirds and turtles which rest, breed, and winter in its islands. However, the SCS conflict has placed all this biodiversity in peril, where rival claimants ramp up their fishing activities not only to secure access to a food source, but to legitimize their claims. Fishing, which should be a purely civilian exercise, has since been weaponized to express a strong political statement on sovereign control (similar to hydrocarbon exploration). Depleting resources are rampaged, open waters are militarized, ultimately inflicting heavy stress on an already fragile ecosystem that is crucial to global food security.

Critique
The nation-states’ view of the environment in purely utilitarian terms has led to the legitimization of its destruction to satisfy political and economic ambitions. ‘Global commons’ (i.e., the common heritage of mankind) such as the world’s oceans have been appropriated where only those powerful enough get privileged access to its bounty. Furthermore, the geopolitics of territorial disputes puts a premium on resource control to secure strategic leverage over competitors. This has made cooperation even harder because it accentuates the notion that these waters have clear lines of authority determined only by militarily superior states. The SCS dispute has been a victim to this framing, where ecology is mere afterthought to power politics and sovereignty. Functional cooperation through environmental governance is proposed to overcome this fixation.

Functional cooperation through environmental governance as a trust builder
Functional cooperation takes place more at the sectoral level rather than the national to go beyond sensitive questions on sovereignty. As Borton (2018) comments, functional cooperation allows participants to be “less concerned with sovereignty and politics than with collecting and analyzing scientific data, which contributed to civil and relatively uncontroversial collaboration.” The ‘Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park’ initiative reflects the functionalist track whereby environmental stakeholders transcend their national affiliations and work around the common language of science. Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio echoes this when he supported the creation of an international marine peace park where all claimants ‘suspend their claims for 50 to 100 years’ to allow reefs damaged due to reclamation activities to heal over. This also induces the conversion of militarized facilities into marine research and eco-tourism facilities which benefits all. It is a ‘win-win solution’ Carpio adds, and ‘nobody loses face’ since standing claims are simply set aside in favor of collectively governing what is common to all of us.

Functional cooperation models in the environment exist in other parts of the world where we can take notes from. Israel and Jordan resolved their political differences over the Red Sea through the establishment of the ‘Red Sea Marine Peace Park’ (RSMPP) program. Environmental representatives from both countries identified their areas of functional cooperation, which interestingly, reflect similar proposals for managing the SCS dispute:

  • Protect natural coastal and marine habitats, particularly coral reefs;
  • Improve sea water quality;
  • Prevent water pollution from marine and land sources;
  • Develop oil spill emergency response efforts and preparedness.
This is compelling proof that the environment can be a point of convergence despite politically charged differences between claimants. It is also worth noting that all claimants in the dispute are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While this international treaty provides clarifications on sensitive maritime entitlement issues, it also supports functional cooperation through environmental governance as reflected in Part XII of the document, calling for the ‘PROTECTION AND PRESERVATON OF THE MARINE ENVIRONMENT’ and Part XIII on ‘MARINE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH’, all of which are anchored on international cooperation. Part XIII, Sec. 3, Art. 247 supports ‘Marine scientific research projects undertaken by or under the auspices of international organizations.’ Environmental functional actors such as the Marine Science Institute (PH), Nha Trang Oceanography Institute (VN), and akin regional research bodies are most suited to lead this noble endeavor. Ultimately, the promise of achieving peace through conservation in the South China Sea lies in our collective will to seriously preserve this global patrimony for generations to come.


1 Borton, James. “As nations fight for control, South China Sea coral reefs are dying in silence.” South China Morning Post. 29 December 2018. Web. 4 May 2019. .
2 Albano, Patricia. “Peace through Conservation: The South China Sea.” Shark Research, University of Miami. 26 February 2018. Web. 4 May 2019. .
3 Georgetown Environment Law Review. “Environmental Ramifications of the South China Sea Conflict: Vying for Regional Dominance at the Environment’s Expense.” Georgetown Law. 12 July 2018. Web. 4 May 2019. .
4 Ibid.
5 Supra note 1.
6 Billones, Trisha. “Carpio suggests turning Spratlys into ‘marine peace park.” ABS CBN News. 14 July 2016. Web. 8 May 2019. .
7 Peace and Biodiversity Dialogue Initiative. “Red Sea Marine Peace Park.” Convention on Biological Diversity. 2017.
8 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.



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