Although the East Sea (SCS) covers only 2.5% of the Earth’s surface, it comprises some 12% of the total global fish catch. Unfortunately, the region’s fisheries are in serious jeopardy. As of 2008, virtually all SCS fishery stocks were collapsed (roughly 25%), over-exploited (roughly 25%), or fully-exploited (roughly 50%). The situation is only worsening. The most important aspect of the disputes is not oil or sovereignty—it is whether or not SCS fish continue to appear on Asia’s menus.
Four trends in particular are important: sustainability, economic importance, rising demand, and declining access. The fishing industry continues to be critical to China’s economy. Fishing revenues make up about 3 percent of China’s GDP and generate up to $279 billion (1.732 trillion RMB) annually. Perhaps more importantly, China employs between 7 and 9 million fishermen (over 14 million industry-wide) who operate over 450,000 fishing vessels (nearly 200,000 are ocean-going vessels) comprising the largest fleet on Earth. Many of these workers have little option for alternative employment.
Fishing is equally important to other SCS claimants. The Philippines employ some 1.5 million traditional fishermen and the industry accounts for 2.7% of national GDP, with three-fourths of the total fishing production from the SCS. Fish comprises some 35.3% of all animal proteins consumed in Vietnam and in the Philippines and Indonesia that number is even higher—42.6% and 57.3% respectively. As one Filipino senator put it, retaining access to fisheries in the face of Chinese advances is not just a matter of economics, but of “starvation.”
A Way Forward
If dwindling fisheries are significant drivers of regional competition, there may be a silver lining that gives some grounds for optimism. Fish are much more tangible objects of negotiation than sovereignty or historical ownership claims. Claimant states, and China in particular, must work to resolve the tensions between pursuing maritime sustainability and retaining unlimited access. Durable regional solutions must begin with domestic approaches that work to sustainably supply China’s fish food demand and provide employment alternatives to millions of over-subsidized Chinese fishermen. Allowing domestic groups to leverage sovereignty narratives to advance their individual interest impedes constructive regional solutions and works against China’s broader national interests.
Sovereignty and sustainability need to be separated in the South China Sea. Claimants might explore multilateral options under UNCLOS Section 197, which mandates that regions “shall” cooperate as required to formulate and elaborate “international rules, standards, and recommended practices and procedures… for the protection and preservation of the marine environment, taking into account characteristic regional features.” Such regional cooperation is urgent and necessary, even when the “characteristic regional features” include intractable sovereignty disputes. Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 proposal to shelve sovereignty disputes and pursue joint development of resources might provide a political basis for Beijing to pursue this approach—especially if it is framed as the necessary condition for continued Chinese access to sustainable fisheries in the SCS that can help meet future demand.
Captain Adam Greer is an officer in the United States Air Force and a Pacific Forum, CSIS WSD-Handa Fellow; some of this research was conducted at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.