Maritime Disputes

Christopher Len
Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore

World political leaders have gathered in Paris this week to negotiate a new universal climate change agreement. There is a need for unified commitment from national governments to cut greenhouse emissions to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming and climate change. According to the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Southeast Asia is one of the two most vulnerable regions in the world to coastal flooding. The region is also predicted to face increased annual mean precipitation and extreme precipitation. Today, half a billion people live along the coasts of the semi-enclosed South China Sea, which the United Nations Environment Programme has identified as “an area of globally significant biological diversity.” Besides its fishery resources, the South China Sea, which is surrounded by Southeast Asian countries and China, is regarded as a strategic shipping route and also contains seabed hydrocarbon resources.

Coastal systems, such as those surrounding the South China Sea, are particularly sensitive to climate change effects. Many of the low-lying areas in both urban population centers and rural communities are vulnerable to sea level rise and experience submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion. The warming and acidification of coastal waters will also have negative impacts on marine ecosystems, which the human populations rely on for their socio-economic livelihood and as a vital source of food security. Coral reefs, for instance, form critical habitats for marine life, including fish stocks, and serve as natural wave-breakers mitigating erosion along the coasts of the South China Sea littoral states, which are prone to big storms. The degradation of reefs through ocean acidification is bound to affect these developing economies.

Adding to the effects of global warming, the South China Sea is facing local man-made environmental stresses, such as unsustainable and destructive fishing, and transboundary pollution, which include oil spills from vessels and offshore oil and gas platform-related operations, as well as wastewater discharges. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the Southeast Asian states and China are signatories, states bordering semi-enclosed seas should cooperate in the management, conservation, exploration, and exploitation of living resources at this sea and in the protection of the marine environment. However, the territorial and maritime boundary disputes between the different states, together with the strong attachment to state sovereignty and a poor record at regional governance, have impeded the ability by these various parties to address the ecological challenges facing the South China Sea in a substantial and coordinated manner.

This is resulting in a maritime tragedy of the commons, which is exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Over-fishing, the erosion of coastal habitats, and transboundary pollution, coupled with the ocean warming and acidification, are affecting South China Sea’s marine ecosystem and decimating the fish stocks. This will result in increased competition at sea between fishermen of different countries over fishing rights. The frequency and intensity of confrontations and clashes between the fishermen themselves and with maritime enforcements agencies are likely to increase, and this will create a more precarious situation at sea. Such disputes are arguably more volatile compared to incidents involving offshore oil and gas operations since they often involve groups of fishermen operating independently, and at times illegally, and whose livelihood are directly connected with the size of their catch at sea. This is in contrast with offshore oil and gas operations, which have less risk of incidents since such operations are closely monitored and controlled.

How does this relate back to the negotiations taking place in Paris? The takeaway message here is that beyond pledges of emission cuts in Paris, countries surrounding the South China Sea must be prepared to work closer together on regional mitigation and adaptation strategies to protect the South China Sea’s delicate marine ecosystem from further environmental degradation, as this affects the developmental and security interests of the littoral countries. The high-level gathering in Paris shows that a shared problem, when serious enough, will bring people together in solidarity to find common solutions on the basis of consensus. Hopefully, the littoral countries of Southeast Asia and China do not leave it too late in the case of the South China Sea.

Melissa Low is a Research Associate at the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore and co-authored this article.

The Author is Christopher Len

Dr. Christopher Len is a Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore.

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