The South China Sea (SCS) is a 3.2 million square kilometre sea at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Given its location and proximity to so many countries, the SCS is a gateway for a significant amount of the world’s commercial merchant shipping and an estimated A$5 trillion in global trade passes through the region each year. Even non-bordering countries like Japan and South Korea rely heavily on the SCS for their supply of fuels and raw materials and as an export route.
The map below shows various territorial claims in the SCS.
Additionally, the SCS contains lucrative fisheries that are crucial for the food security of millions in Southeast Asia, and it is also believed that large oil and gas reserves lie beneath its seabed. It is therefore no surprise that it is also an area of constant maritime and territorial disputes that have been a source of longstanding tension that has recently reached new heights.
The current round of tensions in the SCS started in 2008 with a stand-off between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, a reef that is claimed by both countries. In 2012, China gained control over the structure which was subsequently disputed by the Philippines at the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. In 2014, more disputes occurred between China and Vietnam over the Paracel and then the Spratly Islands when China started oil drilling, large-scale port construction and installation of military-capable infrastructure in areas that are subject to overlapping claims by multiple nations.
The image below is shows China’s transformation of an island in the SCS.
Although the popular belief has been that the conflicts in the SCS are driven by the competing need to access the oil and gas reserves that are believed to exist, the real instigator may be the fisheries resources in the area. The SCS is home to some of the world’s richest reef systems and over 3,000 indigenous and migratory fish species, comprising some 12 percent of the total global fish catch. Its fisheries are a vital source of protein to the more than 270 million people that live along its coast.
However, some believe that the fisheries resources of the SCS are being depleted at an unsustainable rate through over exploitation and habitat degradation and loss. A study by Ussif Rashid Sumaila and William W. L. Cheung predicts that key fish stocks will decline by 50% (as measured by catch) by 2045. Unsustainable and destructive fishing methods and gears are being used to maintain high catch rates and increase incomes in the short-term. The importance of fishing to China’s economy and the exponential growth in its fish consumption and therefore demand means that the situation may only get worse as the various nations that fringe the SCS continue to compete for a drastically dwindling resource.
As a large net importer of seafood, Australia will not be immune from the fallout from the tension brewing in the SCS as it relies on a number of the countries that border the SCS for its seafood supply.
It is also worth noting that Australian fisheries like the South East Trawl are recognised as some of the best managed in the world. Restrictions on the amount of fish that can be caught, the total number of boats that can fish, the type of gear that can be used and sustainable quotas ensure that fish stocks are exploited sustainably.
The global food challenge means that Australia has a roll to play in global food security. Australian decision makers must consider this when making decisions that transfer the resource from a source of food.