RANE's South China Sea

Survey Results

Latest survey from the Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE suggests tide may be lifting science research surveys above the geopolitical fray.

The South China Sea is a unique natural laboratory for ocean research and exploration, yet it remains mired in disputed territorial claims between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Rather than serving as a promising gateway for oceanographic research, rising tensions and mistrust in the region pose a serious threat to geopolitical and ecological security in Southeast Asia. 

It is against this background that results of a new South China Sea Maritime Survey offers recognition that there’s common ground in the contested sea. The results underscore the urgency to examine the benefits and prospects of science-led initiatives in light of the unfolding climate and ecological changes occurring in the region.

The Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE in collaboration with James Borton, senior fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins, surveyed scientists, analysts, and security professionals from the South China Sea claimant countries and other Indo-Pacific nations, providing a broader spectrum of both geographical and experiential perspectives. 

Three key points emerged from the survey findings:

  • Although geopolitical issues top the list of concerns in the South China Sea, many of these issues have underlying environmental factors, particularly surrounding fisheries. The SCS accounts for some 12 percent of global fish catch, and competition for fisheries is linked to territorial disputes, expanding securitization of the South China Sea, and environmental degradation further undermining the stability of traditional fishing grounds. Regional competition significantly curtails efforts at collaborative management of fisheries, exacerbating competition in a vicious cycle.
  • Scientific research and science diplomacy has the potential to address some of the underlying factors contributing to regional tensions, but there is little trust that such collaboration is possible in the current environment. There is a long history of competing nations continuing or expanding scientific cooperation, and management of the food (and other natural) resources in the South China Sea requires a coordinated effort to collect and share data, something hindered in the current strategic environment. Bilateral efforts have proven effective, and there is room for a shift to multilateral collaboration, building off other regional or historical models.
  • Given the importance of environmental factors impacting food security and strategic competition in the South China Sea, respondents suggest an increased need for policy makers to better understand the environmental science of fisheries to make more informed decisions. This also applies to other resources in the South China Sea, including subsea oil, gas, and minerals, exploration of which often leads to security confrontations in the region. As environmental issues play a strong role in the geopolitics of the region, it is important to collect better data and disseminate better information to prepare policy makers. 

Rodger Baker, Executive Director of the Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE, commented on these findings, “The survey results highlight the importance of environmental factors in geopolitical relations, emphasizing the need for more effective interaction not only among international scientists, but between scientists, political analysts, and policy makers.”

“While the region’s complex geopolitical challenges obscure the adoption of science diplomacy as a panacea, the survey suggests that claimant nations should stop overfishing, illegal and unregulated fishing, and coral destruction before it's too late,” said James Borton, author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.

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