Fish in decline, navies multiplying: South China Sea crises piling up

Academic experts gathered at Thammasat University on June 20 to discuss two security crises in the South China Sea: aggressive new strategic moves by China that are threatening the region’s geopolitical landscape on one hand, and declines in fish populations that endanger food security on the other.

The seminar at Thammasat University

The contentious South China Sea dispute may become more strategically challenging as traditional security and food security increasingly approached, academics said at the seminar entitled “The Code of Conduct on the South China Sea: Military and Marine Resources in 2019”.

Speaking on China’s militarization of waters, Dr. Li Nan from the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute warned that Beijing had made several aggressive actions in disputed waters including aircraft-carrier centered operations combined with the deployment of submarines. China is also engaging in submarine weapons testing (the JL-3SLBM missile) and the construction of Type 096 nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

The security expert said that China’s reef fortification activities broadly serve 3 purposes: supporting naval operations such as harbor construction on the Spratly Islands, creating reconnaissance and surveillance structures, and building communication platforms in the area.

On strategy, Li said that the PLA’s navy presence has increased from 20,000 to 100,000 men in order to protect both national interests in the South China Sea and another grand policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s broader national defence budget also risen to USD 175 billion, a third of the US defence budget of USD 700 billion (once the gap stood at 20-fold in comparison).

Meanwhile Dr. Carmen Ablan-Lagman from the Center for Natural Science and Environment Research, De La Salle University described security from the point of view of fishery. The academic frets that fishing in the South China Sea passed the point of sustainability in 1970 due to overfishing, both from small-scale to industrial-scale fishing boats.

Ablan-Lagman is concerned that without regional fishing sustainability, a major protein source of regional populations will be diminished. Data shows that ASEAN and East Asian populations receive 7-15 percent of their protein intake from fish, more than populations in Brazil, UK, Germany and the US. Data gathered by Carmen shows that during 2005-2014, Malaysians on average had the highest fish intake among the contentious South China Sea parties (51 kg per person each year), followed by Vietnam (41.06kg) and China (34.68kg).

Environmental degradation plays a major part in fish conservation. Increases in sea temperatures from climate change drive local fish away to cooler waters. Contamination from oil also affects fish survivability.

30 percent of global trade makes its way through the South China Sea. ASEAN countries and China is currently working on a regional Code of Conduct (CoC). The first reading is expected to take place this year. Parties have repeatedly confirmed that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), about freedom of navigation and flight, will be respected. CoC also makes mention of fishing disputes.