Importance of Cooperation Mechanism
The South China Sea is of strategic importance because of its geographic position and wealth of resources. With more than 100,000 vessels passing through each year, it is a critical shipping hub between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, ranking among the world’s most important maritime corridors. It is also home to abundant fisheries, as well as oil, gas and tourism resources. About 20 percent of the world’s fishery resources are located in the region, as well as approximately 11.2 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Currently, about 2,000 oil and gas wells are in operation in the area.10
The South China Sea is a typical closed or semi-closed sea, where coastal countries are highly dependent on marine resources. Peace and stability is crucial for the security, development and prosperity of all coastal states and the well-being of their peoples. However, overfishing and illegal, unregulated and underreported (IUU) fishing activities represent a “critical threat” to biodiversity. The wider ecosystem has also suffered the effects of pollution from agriculture and coastal development. Each decade, 30 percent of seagrass, 16 percent of mangrove, and 16 percent of live coral cover is lost due to unsustainable use by the more than 270 million people that live along the coast.11 Therefore, there is a pressing need for cooperation on environmental protection and fishery management in the region.
At the same time, for historical reasons and because there are so many countries in the South China Sea area, relevant states in the region are entangled in complicated disputes over territory, maritime rights and interests.12 In recent years, the South China Sea has become one of the
world’s most contested bodies of water. Political trust among regional countries has declined and doubts have increased. With tensions rising across the region, the potential for a conflict in and around the sea has risen significantly in past years.
The situation in the South China Sea is cooling down at present, yet remains potentially combustible. In light of this fact, it is both timely and appropriate to have a discussion about how to maintain the current levels of relative stability for as long as possible, minimize the possibility of deterioration, and shape a new form of regional governance that will be acceptable to and beneficial for the parties concerned. Besides the COC negotiations, there are several other goals that merit serious efforts, such as promoting concrete regional cooperation and establishing a workable mechanism in the South China Sea. In such a mechanism, regional coastal states will strengthen the management and protection of the South China Sea through practical cooperation, so as to deepen mutual trust, increase predictability, clarify intentions, and create a favorable environment for the eventual settlement of relevant disputes through negotiation and consultation.
China and ASEAN countries signed the DOC in November 2002. With regards to cooperation in the South China Sea, Article 6 of the Declaration clearly states: “Pending a comprehensive settlement of the disputes, the Parties concerned may explore or undertake cooperative activities. These may include the following: a. marine environmental protection; b. marine scientific research; c. safety of navigation and communication at sea; d. search and rescue operations; and e. combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.”13
For either enhancing environmental governance or addressing security challenges, relevant countries are all intent on effectively managing and protecting the area. Policy-makers and diplomats have tried to resolve the challenges in the region, and scholars have advocated a myriad of
mechanisms as well, but few efforts have paid off. Nevertheless, endeavors aimed at peaceful resolution of regional challenges must continue, especially now that the COC negotiations are making progress. It is the right time to consider establishing cooperation mechanisms in the South China Sea.