Cooperation in the South China Sea: from Dispute Management to Ocean Governance, by Nguyen Dang Thang

Monday, 21 January 2013 09:13 vuquangtiep

The South China Sea (SCS) has long been of interest to scholars of international law and international relations.[1] But attention has been paid almost exclusively to the simmering territorial disputes in the SCS. While this is justified by the concern that such disputes pose a threat to regional peace and stability, that the management of the territorial disputes in the SCS dominates existing literature may belie the fact that problems associated with the use and management of oceans in general and the South China Sea in particular are interrelated and should be addressed in a holistic way. This paper canvasses for a more comprehensive approach to cooperation in the SCS through the prism of ocean governance.


The paper, besides the Introduction and Conclusions, contains four sections. Section 2 highlights the significance of the South China Sea. This is followed by a brief overview in Section 3 of the territorial disputes and their implications for the management of the SCS. Section 4 points out the shortcoming of the two existing approaches to the management of the SCS and Section 5 mentions some principles that inform an alternative approach to the SCS, that is ocean governance.

The significance of the South China Sea

The SCS – the second largest semi-enclosed sea in the world – is bordered by China (including Taiwan) and eight ASEAN countries, namely the Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. As part of the most direct route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the SCS plays a crucial role in maritime trade of our globe, serving as the crucial conduit for more than a quarter of the world’s trade volume.[2] Thus, the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) through the SCS are of great importance to not only Southeast Asian coastal states but also states beyond the region. In fact, most of maritime traffic between East Asia and Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia passes through the SCS.[3] By the same token, the SCS is also significant in military terms, especially for naval powers who want to maintain or increase their global military posture and rely on the SCS transit corridors for rapid deployments between the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.[4]

In addition to the geo-strategic importance, the SCS is vital to the developing economies of countries in the region as it holds a large number of assets, notably living and non-living resources. With regard to the latter, there is also widespread perception that the seabed of the SCS holds significant amounts of oil and gas. This is testified by significant commercial discoveries made at the margins of the SCS.[5] Given their increasing energy demands and the surging oil prices, the oil factor arguably looms large in the geopolitical calculations of states in the region. Living resources in the SCS are abundant[6]and most of the fisheries resources in the SCS are either highly migratory or transboundary stocks,[7] such as scad, mackerel and especially tuna – the most valuable and sought-after species.[8] The abundance of marine living resources in SCS is thanks to its high biodiversity[9] with coral reefs being the important nursery and breeding grounds for regional fisheries.

The socio-economicimportance of fisheries to the East Asian countries cannot be overestimated. In fact, fish has been and continues providing an important source of protein for countries in the region.[10]The already high annual per capita fish consumption in China and Southeast Asia is estimated to increase from 33.6 million and 18 million tons in 2005 by 4.5-5.5 million and 3 million tones respectively after 10 years.[11]Fisheries have always been of great social importance to East Asian countries, creating jobs for a large portion of population living in the coastal sub-region. In fact, in 2010, the SCS countries accounted for more than 75% and approximately 49% of the total marine fish capture production of Asia and the world respectively.[12]Economically speaking, fishery exports are an important source of foreign currency for coastal states.[13]



Read full text of this paper here

[1]See, e.g, MS Samuels, Contest for the South China Sea (Methuen, New York, 1982) (historical account); MJ Valencia, JM Van Dyke and NA Ludwig, Sharing the resources of the South China Sea (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1997) (legal and natural science); S Bateman and R Emmers (eds), Security and International Politics in the South China Sea: Towards a Co-operative Management Regime (Routledge, London, 2009) (interdisciplinary perspective); R Emmers, Geopolitics and maritime territorial disputes in East Asia (Routledge, London, 2009) (geo-political science). See also C Schofield and I Storey, 'The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions' [2009] The Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper (The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC) (for a succinct summary of all pertinent issues relating to the SCS disputes).

[2]C Schofield, 'Dangerous Ground: A Geopolitical Overview of the South China Sea' in S Bateman and R Emmers (eds), Security and International Politics in the South China Sea: Towards a Co-operative Management Regime (Routledge, London, 2009), ch 1, 7, 18.

[3]G Kullenberg, 'Transportation across the Sea' in C Thia-Eng and others (eds), Securing the Oceans: Essays on Ocean Governance (GEF/UNDP/IMO Regional Programme on Building Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA) and the Nippon Foundation, Quezon City, 2008), ch 4, 41, 49. See also Schofield, supra,18, states that 70% of Japan’s energy needs and 65% of China’s pass through these SLOS.

[4]Schofield and Storey, supra,1.

[5]See Table 3. The oil and gas potential of the central part of the SCS, however, remains speculative ‘best guesstimate’ due to the lack of sufficient exploration activities. See Schofield, supra,15-6.

[6]The SCS, flushed by several large rivers, is considered as one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. See D Rosenberg, "Fisheries Management in the South China Sea" in S Bateman and R Emmers (eds), Security and International Politics in the South China Sea: Towards a Co-operative Management Regime (London: Routledge, 2009) 61. T Kivimäki (ed), War or peace in the South China Sea? (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2002) at 44, ranks the SCS 4th in the 19 richest fishing zones in the world.

[7]K-H Wang, 'Bridge over troubled waters: fisheries cooperation as a resolution to the South China Sea conflicts' (2001) 14(4) The Pacific Review 531, 535-36.

[8]Rosenberg, supra, 62.

[9]PEMSEA (Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia), Sustainable Development Strategy for the Seas of East Asia: Regional Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development Requirements for the Coasts and Oceans, 2003, 16, states that the SCS is “the global centre of marine shallow-water tropical biodiversity”.

[10]Rosenberg, supra, 62. See FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2008 (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009) at 154.

[11]See FAO, ibid. at 171, 172.

[12]See Table 1 for greater details.

[13]See Table 2.


Older news items: