This article by HD senior advisor Michael Vatikiotis is based on his speech in late March at the annual meeting of the Boao Forum for Asia.

In the eyes of many people, the South China Sea has become a cockpit of conflict and contestation.

Overlapping claims of sovereignty are complicated by escalating geopolitical tensions. The most common metric is whether littoral states are aligned with one superpower or another.

What if we look at the South China Sea through a different lens, one that highlights its social and economic significance?

What if we imagine a South China Sea as a commonwealth, an old-fashioned word defining a community for the common good?

Let’s remind ourselves of the setting and the scale. Bigger than India, the 3.5 million square km of mostly shallow sea are ringed by heavily populated coastlines and dotted with islands.

Under the waves are perhaps 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, almost a quarter of fish species and 12% of the world’s fish catch.

On the water, teeming shipping lanes carry up to a third of global trade volumes. More than 1.7 million fishing boats ply the South China Sea, supporting the livelihoods of around 5 million fisherfolk who, in turn, feed countless millions.

For a moment, let’s set aside our political maps filled with contentious lines. 

If we instead examine a biological map, we would see a South China Sea full of whale shark migration. We would see rich seagrass beds. We would also see damaged coral reefs and once-rich fishing grounds at risk of depletion and collapse.

None of these would respect the lines on the political maps.

This demands that regional states cooperate in discharging their special responsibility as stewards of the South China Sea. This is not just another abstract responsibility: UNCLOS signatories are legally obliged to jointly manage their shared resources.  

Given the geopolitical realities today, let’s imagine how we can protect and preserve – even better, equitably and sustainably use – these precious resources. 

What, in an ideal world, does a shared South China Sea look like?

Good order at sea

Based on the work the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) has done over almost a decade of dialogue on the South China Sea, the first point is about managing enhanced cooperation and the sharing of information.

There is no better way to ensure that ordinary people benefit from the South China Sea than making sure that normal and legal economic activities carry on unhindered.

For this, the best tool is not military posturing but cooperation between law enforcement agencies of the South China Sea. These agencies are out there on the water and are at the forefront of daily interactions.

Yet, amazingly, these crucial agencies have very few chances to properly meet and talk with each other. Inevitably, this raises the temperature.

In the past few years, maritime law enforcement agencies from the littoral states have started to recognise this. Together, they have agreed that at least some common operating principles will help with the smooth safeguarding of economic activity.

The enforcement agencies agree that it’s good to be transparent in their communications with each other, to do no harm in carrying out their law enforcement duties and to have due regard for good order at sea.

These basic principles collectively help to promote predictability and reduce tensions whenever maritime law enforcement agencies encounter each other on the water.

To share these Common Operating Principles, HD has organised several table-top exercises for the South China Sea maritime law enforcement agencies.

Beyond building a spirit of cooperation, the exercises offer a much-needed platform for line agencies to interact – not through diplomatic channels but directly with their foreign counterparts.

Let scientists set the course

The second way to promote more efficient and sustainable use of the South China Sea is to ensure cooperation among the region’s talented scientists. 

Sovereignty is a strong barrier here. Despite successful regional cooperation and the relatively free flow of trade among Southeast Asian countries and China, there remain very strong obstacles to sharing scientific data that is vital to protecting our shared environment.

One way to begin breaking down these barriers is to agree on permitting the scientific community to combine their talents and data to ensure the sustainable management of fish stocks needed and used by all.

Alarmingly, these fish stocks are down 70% to 95% since the 1950s.

To address the challenges of preservation, dedicated scientists from around the region have been working together to develop a shared evidence base that is essential for effective regional action.

Building that evidence base is like completing a complex jigsaw puzzle. Each country has a piece. No country can do it alone.

The group of scientists, supported by the Philippines, launched the 1st Common Fisheries Resource Analysis last year, combining the information and talents of more than 100 experts to understand the status of a key tuna species.

They are now working on follow-up studies. Their effort shows how sustained international collaboration can build more sustainable management of the South China Sea’s resources.

The fact that rival states can set aside differences and cooperate on a shared fish stock is laudable and should be encouraged. The South China Sea has many more fish than just tuna.

Finding a better alternative

Finally, there is the work on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Many observers do not believe an agreed text will ever be reached. That’s a glass half empty view.

Having tracked the negotiations for the past decade, my sense is that discussions about the Code of Conduct serve as a confidence-building mechanism that keeps the littoral states engaged and in dialogue on potentially divisive issues.

As ever in the region, it is as much about the process as it is about the product.

These three steps – law enforcement cooperation, sharing data on fish stocks and maintaining dialogue on the Code of Conduct – will not create a community for the common good on their own.

But when the current realities include rising geopolitical tensions and active militarisation, creating space to talk about shared resources and interests in the South China Sea is not only the next best alternative, it’s a glass half full.

Photo: Vietnamese and Chinese coast guard vessels in the South China Sea. © EPA