Activists display anti-China placards and flags during a protest at a park in Manila on June 18, 2019, after a Chinese vessel collided with a Philippine fishing boat, which sank in the disputed South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

In the midst of a global pandemic, US voters have chosen Joe Biden as their next president, paving the way to a new era of science and hoped-for reason. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, China and Vietnam, both rivals in the contested South China Sea (SCS), have now embarked on a new era for ocean science with the potential for maritime cooperation. 

China recently hosted a two-day international ocean governance program with a roster of speakers from the US and SCS claimant nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam. The theme of the inaugural symposium, “Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance,” preceded Hanoi’s own program, “Maintaining Peace and Cooperation through Time of Turbulence,” being held this week. But what does all of this signal?

In this sea of opportunities, uncertainties and threats, environmental degradation remains at the center of scientific and policy conversations as more marine biologists and oceanographers sound the alarm over acidification, loss of biodiversity, climate change, destruction of coral reefs and fishery collapse. 

Because of these issues, there’s a rising chorus among Chinese and Vietnamese marine scientists who view the South China Sea as an ideal platform for promoting regional cooperation. The tide is lifting science-research survey vessels above the din of politics and sovereignty claims. It brings to the churning sea more central solutions for the region’s long-term peace and sustainability.

The respective programs also happen to correspond with the start of the 2021 UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development that offers a process that will be inclusive, participatory and global in its approach. 

Just as the current pandemic necessitates a harmonized and collaborative approach to clinical testing, scale-up and distribution, the SCS environment requires attentive science cooperation for fisheries management, ecological conservation of coral reefs, and open access to ocean data.

At the event hosted by China, Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Center for International Strategy and Security at Tsinghua University, reminded the more than 500 onsite and online attendees of the “urgency to enhance global governance and improve the efficiency of international coordination mechanisms, which is also the case for ocean governance.”

Co-organized by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC), the two-day China conference was held in Haikou, the capital city of Hainan province. The irony is not lost on Hanoi that the fast-tracked maritime-cooperation event was held near where a new port facility hosts China’s maritime militias and is close to the contested Spratly Islands.

For more than a decade, China has vigorously staked a claim to 90% of the SCS as its sovereign territory, within the so-called “nine-dash line.”

“I think that among CSARC issues they include as such traditional and non-traditional security, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, joint development and management of natural resources, and crisis prevention and management,” claims Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

However, Poling is quick to add that even in disguise of marine scientific research, China does engage in activities to serve its economic and/or military purposes.

Beijing’s hard-power maritime expansionism is revealed in its modern navy, coastguard, and paramilitary fleet that has continued to ram fishing boats, harass oil-exploration surveys, build military outposts on reclaimed atolls, and hold combat drills. 

Taiwanese research fellow Yann-huei Song, who participated in the China program, reflects the views of the conference organizers in their stated collaboration goals for a shared and sustainable future. “Accordingly, it is my view that the program reveals an authentic Chinese response to science cooperation by adopting a multilateral approach,” Song writes in an e-mail.

On the Vietnamese front and in anticipation of Hanoi’s own program, Nguyen Hung Son, who was also a participant in the China symposium, points to new directions for South China Sea inquiry and cooperation. 

In a full disclaimer, as a panelist in the Vietnam program held early this week, my session “Marine Science: How Science and Technology May Impact the Good Order of the Sea” offers solutions for the promotion of science cooperation. 

To be clear, the development of sciences and related ocean technologies helps to expand new frontiers on how citizens understand, exploit, and manage the ocean, suggesting new opportunities for cooperation and new alternatives to address maritime issues and reduce tensions.

However, the shape of ocean science is also influenced by larger geopolitical disputes and economic pressure attributed to competition over oil and gas resources, and commercial fishing. There’s surprising reassurance from one of China’s leading scientists, Zou Xinqing of the School of Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences at Nanjing University, who believes that “science collaboration is very important for this region.”

These science-focused SCS programs offer a marine-stewardship initiative among scientists, communities and the general public to address climate change, coral-reef destruction, biodiversity loss, pollution and fisheries depletion.

It’s true that large amounts of ecological data are required, but the cooperation among nations, especially from China to foster an open access digital ecosystem, requires far more development. Unfortunately, vast stores of ocean data remain restricted in the databases of governments and researchers.

While there has been some marine-science cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries, the scale remains limited. 

“I am skeptical that such cooperation will significantly expand in the coming years since the disputes in the South China Sea serve as a huge obstacle for such cooperation,” says Li Mingjiang, as associate professor at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

There are competing visions and views for regional marine-science cooperation surrounding the contested South China Sea. The expansion of cabled ocean observatories now brings data ashore through the Internet. Open access of information-sharing in the disputed SCS can benefit all claimant nations, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, in the form of ocean governance and fisheries sustainability.  

The promise of science in a new White House administration signals a return to data and facts as a key policy shift. Let’s also hope that China unlocks open-access science data that may lead to a connected, sustainable South China Sea community.

James Borton

James Borton is an independent writer and researcher on environmental security issues in the Mekong Delta and the South China Sea. He is also a co-founder of the Mekong Environment Forum.