Commentary: The shared stewardship of the South China Sea


IN May 2016, CNN Philippines reported that Filipino fishermen were arrested by the Malaysian navy near the waters around Commodore Reef, one of the disputed features in the Spratly islands (“PH military: Malaysian navy detains three fishermen in South China Sea,” May 25, 2016). The fishermen were from Zambales. Why did they go as far as that? The same reason Chinese fishermen can be found as far as Indonesia: dwindling fish stocks.

Every coastal community in the South China Sea has been overfishing and engaging in destructive fishing practices, as mentioned in Boom or Bust: The Future of Fish in the South China Sea (University of British Columbia, November 2015).

The Global International Waters Assessment already emphasized this in their 2006 report, “Challenges to International Waters – Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective,” by the United Nations Environment Program. The fishing communities bordering the South China Sea have been engaging in unsustainable practices as their governments “publicly exhort their fishermen to fish disputed waters, which has resulted in a number of conflicts, notably in the waters around the Spratly Islands. Illegal fishing, overfishing, and poaching of rare species are common in the South China Sea region.”

In 2015, as reported by, Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit of the University of British Columbia, warned about the severity of the problem: “The South China Sea is…under threat from various sources. We need to do something… There are lots of peoples bordering the South China Sea…when you don’t cooperate, everybody races for the fish because the thinking is if you don’t catch the fish, someone else [from another country]will catch it…The most scary thing is the level of decline we have seen over the years. Some species [are facing]technically extinction or depletion”(“Some South China Sea fish close to extinction,” November 3, 2015).

The problem of dwindling fish stocks cannot be solved by any international court. It’s not a legal problem but an ecological crisis, requiring the cooperation of the coastal states of the South China Sea— China/Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

To insist on dividing the South China Sea is akin to splitting the child in the story of Solomon and the two women. Applying the gist of Solomon’s decision, a more constructive approach to the South China Sea conflict should not start from the self-interest of the states but from the superordinate interest: the best interest of the sea itself. Realizing this superordinate interest is a necessary condition for the coastal states to sustainably enjoy the bounties of the sea in the long run.

The South China Sea is an ecological system and it must be managed as such. Establishing maritime boundaries could be disastrous for the management of the marine environment of the sea. This is because the boundaries of any ecosystem are ecologically rather than politically and economically determined. Consequently, the best option for the coastal states is to have an integrated approach to managing the marine environment and resources of the South China Sea.

To realize this, the coastal states must forego their myopic interests structured by the Westphalian notion of territorial sovereignty in favor of the idea of shared stewardship. Shared stewardship acknowledges that individual interests are so intertwined they couldn’t be separated, while territorial sovereignty is all about excluding others. The best interest of our coastal communities is intertwined with the best interest of the South China Sea, which demands that we work with our coastal neighbors.

Shared stewardship entails reframing our relationship with other states bordering the South China Sea. They’re not our kaaway (enemies) we must destroy but our kadagat we need to engage with. I use kadagat in the same vein as kabayan, which means belonging to the same land. Kadagat has the sea as its reference point; it means belonging to the same sea. The Philippines and the rest of its kadagat belong to the South China Sea. And together with our kadagat, we are not its owner but its custodians.

(Published in The Manila Times, 1 June 2017)

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