James Borton: Resetting science collaboration to avoid ecological disaster and ensure new opportunities for peacebuilding in the South China Sea
The South China Sea is a unique natural laboratory for ocean research and exploration. And yet, this rifted basin, dotted with atolls, coral reefs, and islets, some recently reclaimed, is mired in disputed territorial claims between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Rather than serving as a promising gateway for oceanographic research, peace, and prosperity, rising tensions and mistrust in the region reveal, a serious threat to geopolitical and ecological security in Southeast Asia.
More than 625 million people of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) depend upon a healthy global ocean. Meanwhile, coral reefs are dying as a result of an ecological catastrophe unfolding in the region’s once fertile and prized fishing grounds. As reclamations destroy marine habitats, agricultural and industrial run-off poison coastal waters, and overfishing depletes fish stocks, it is no wonder that more marine biologists’ voices are vital in a rules-based ecological approach to protect the environment and the threats to endangered species, including sea turtles, sharks, and giant clams.
Through ASEAN, especially from member countries Vietnam, and China, science cooperation forums and workshops are shaping a new South China Sea narrative about the ecological dangers of biodiversity loss, climate change, coral reef depletion, pollution, and collapsing fisheries
“As scientists, we should rise above the politics and focus on the bigger and more important questions central to humanity’s long-term wellbeing,” claims Professor Nianzhi Jiao, an ecologist at Xiamen University at a past South China Sea forum held in Shanghai.
There are historical precedents for oceanic international collaboration. This includes the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) tectonics drilling surveys conducted in 2014 among scientists from the US, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, India, and Brazil in the South China Sea. Others like the South China Sea Monsoon Experiment (1996-2001), initiated by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, brought together scientists from Taiwan, Australia, and the United States.
The collaboration chronicle includes the Joint Oceanographic Marine Scientific Research Expeditions conducted between the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS) from 1996-2007. More recently, The Philippines and Vietnam have agreed to resume their joint marine scientific expedition later in 2022.
Additionally, China and Vietnam previously established a Working Group on Cooperation for Maritime Development, to enhance cooperation in waters beyond the Gulf of Tonkin in less sensitive geographic areas. Both nations successfully carried out bilateral maritime cooperation on sea-wave storm tide forecast models.
Marine scientists believe that the best way to engage in effective ocean science cooperation is to examine the common interests in the region and that now encompasses an examination of climate change, ocean acidification, severe weather patterns associated with an increasing number of typhoons, and the role of marine protected areas.
Also, China has previously participated in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) for the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) in collaborative ocean workshops held in Manila in 2009. The Monsoon Onset Monitoring and it’s Social and Ecosystem Impacts (MOMSEI) drew participants from Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This bodes well for sharing data from ocean observatories and for depoliticizing ongoing pressures in the South China Sea.
Dr. Weidong Yu, a senior researcher, at the School of Atmospheric Sciences at Sun Tat-Sen University advocates for regional oceanographic cooperation. “I think the ocean science cooperation is the best way forward in collecting and stimulating the common interests to address many challenges, including climate change, extreme weather, and marine ecosystems.”
Enter science diplomacy. Although it is not a new approach to international relations in general, the timing for its adoption in dispute management in the South China Sea has arrived. For several decades, science has been adopted as a diplomatic tool for peace-building by many countries, and there are many organizations that strengthen global scientific relationships.
Science has been adopted as a diplomatic tool for peace-building by many countries, and there are organizations that strengthen global scientific relationships, like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
For example, science diplomacy has been used effectively in the Arctic through the Arctic Council, a leading intergovernmental forum, established in 1996. Comprised of eight Arctic nations, including rivals US and Russia and indigenous groups, it is a stellar example of science and technology-based collaborative research. Through scientific leadership, the Council members have enacted several legally binding agreements reinforcing environmental protection and sustainability, one of the recent ones was signed in May 2017 on enhancing Arctic scientific cooperation.
“The Arctic Science Agreement reflects a common interest to enhance scientific cooperation even when diplomatic channels among nations are unstable, recognizing first the importance of maintaining peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the Arctic,” claims Dr. Paul Berkman, past director of the Science Diplomacy Center at Tufts and Fulbright Arctic Chair.
Science in the Service of Diplomatic Engagement
While some policy experts believe that China’s embrace of science cooperation offers evolving evidence of what Beijing characterizes as their ‘peaceful rise, others view the nation’s blue water ambitions and regional hegemonic actions in the South China Sea as a clear and dangerous threat to every state in the region.
In the interim, claimant nations understand that there’s no time to waste in providing mechanisms for ocean governance in navigating a charted course in the development of science diplomacy to prevent geopolitical battles over the management of marine resources in the ‘Global Commons’. The convergence of science and geopolitics necessitates the expansion of scientific forums and collaborative problem-solving among all neighbors.
Although nation-states have different approaches toward science diplomacy, in general, this type of diplomacy is defined by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as (i) science in diplomacy (science to inform foreign policy decisions); (ii) diplomacy for science (promotion of international scientific collaborations) and (iii) science for diplomacy (establishment of scientific cooperation to ease tensions between nations). In that sense, it is widely accepted among environmental policy planners that science diplomacy contributes measurably to the terms of conflict resolution.
Policymakers may do well to take a lesson or two from nature as they examine how best to address the complex and myriad of intractable sovereignty claims through the lens of science. After all, marine biologists and oceanographers, who share a common language that cuts across political, economic, and social differences, recognize the structure of a coral reef is strewn with the wreckage of ongoing conflict and represents one of nature’s cruelest battlefields.
To be clear, environmental monitoring successfully offers a context for countries to express their true perception of the region without being influenced by nationalistic, political, or economic factors like sovereignty or foreign policy direction. Consequently, claimants can be more confident in future cooperation on other issues.
One specific area where there’s a consensus is the expansion of marine protected areas to mitigate the collapse of fisheries in the region. Destructive fishing practices and climate change are cited as major threats to coral reefs. China has more than 270 marine protected areas and its neighbor Vietnam has 12 under protection. This linkage is an excellent opportunity for the renewal of the China-ASEAN Cooperation Framework, especially in workshops on marine environmental protection. Since Beijing has significant maritime resources, including available marine research vessels to deploy, data sharing and the mapping of ecologically sensitive areas can support fisheries for the benefit of all states.
In other words, science diplomacy can establish a useful and convenient starting point for regional cooperation to deal with not only international environmental problems but also the achievement of a South China Sea settlement in particular and the region’s prosperity and peace in general.
Of course, geopolitics is always at play in the contested South China Sea. While the Biden administration has called managing America’s relationship with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and the Ocean University of China (OUC) have been engaged in promoting research collaborations in deep-ocean and coastal regions in a changing climate.
In fact, cooperative science activities do not have any effect on the status quo of the South China Sea disputes. However, it keeps alive the hope for a solution to these disputes by creating a myriad of confidence-building activities with all of the involved parties engaged, instead of freezing activities and deadlocking the South China Sea issue, especially with regard to environmental and economic aspects.
For now, the tide may be lifting the possibility for science research surveys above the geopolitical noise and above the fray of sovereignty claims, IFIMES reported.
About the author:
James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of the new book “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES’ official position.
Ljubljana/Washington, 23 February 2023
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has had Special Consultative Status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
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