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Harvesting the waves: Marine Protected Areas can shape policy and politics in South China Sea

Photo courtesy of Pew Charitable Trust

By James Borton

Despite the rising tensions over sovereignty claims in the South China Seas, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including China, are now embracing marine protected areas (MPAs) to support the health of the ocean.

The science is clear: create a place of refuge in which marine life can thrive, and the overspill provides more fish for all. It’s a practice that is proving successful. In the face of dire environmental challenges, more governments are committed to protecting up to 30% of the ocean territory by 2030. This is especially critical in Southeast Asia, which is home to some of our planet’s most biologically-diverse coral reefs.

With the collapse of fisheries in the South China Sea, marine protected areas offer a safety net that is proving to be a non-threatening measure for claimant nations to get behind. Sadly, far too many reefs are degraded. While coral reefs take up less than 1 percent of the ocean’s area, a fourth of all marine species depend on the reef at some point in their lives.

It’s no wonder, that China knows that it is in dangerous waters since it has entered the ‘Ecological Conservation Redline (ECR), which reflects Beijing’s urgency to protect marine spaces from development. Over the past two decades, it has lost over 73 percent of its mangrove cover and over 80 percent of coral reefs.

In an era of rapid environmental shifts and unprecedented economic development, China has joined ranks with ASEAN in undertaking the roll-out of marine protected areas. Within these no-development zones, conserving and restoring degraded coastal ecosystems are priorities. This stepped-up protection of its designated marine areas is visible in its more than 270 MPAs.

A 2021 research article in Science Advances states that China’s MPAs “protect rare or endangered species and ecosystems. They are no-take, meaning any extraction of fish or other living resources is illegal.”

According to the Marine Conservation Institute only 3.6 percent of the world’s oceans - 2.4 percent in strict no-take zones is protected by 11,169 implemented MPAs in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia there are many challenges in the implementation of these sanctuaries attributed to the lack of resources, often limiting their size, number and management capability.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainability Goals maintains that the top challenges for creating MPAs in the world include poor prioritization of marine areas to protect; faulty implementation of protection measures; unequal distribution, with developed countries leading in MPAs creation; and, loss of income for the local communities due to the creation of no-take zones.

In addition to contributing to biodiversity conservation, an important role of protected areas is to promote peace and cooperation. This is particularly true with transboundary protected areas or peace parks, which can be used to solve border disputes, secure or maintain peace during and after an armed conflict and promote stable and cooperative relationships between neighboring states.

In a regional sea with complicated territorial and maritime disputes like the South China Sea, the development of a regional network of MPAs with marine peace parks as components offers the possibility of decreasing tensions and enhancing cooperation between disputing claimants.

From a political point of view, cooperation in MPAs in a disputed area might be accepted by relevant claimants more easily than in other issues. Unlike oil and gas exploitation and fisheries, the development of a regional network of MPAs does not require any type of commercial extraction and sharing of marine resources.

There are policy advances derived from cooperative marine science projects, which offer benefits for the establishment of new marine protected areas in the South China Sea. For instance, at the regional level, the first common fisheries resource analysis relating to skipjack tuna in the South China Sea was completed in September 2022 with the support of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the participation of fisheries scientists from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.


At the bilateral level, the Philippines and Vietnam plan to resume the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea. This collaboration ran from 1994 to 2007 and helped acquire important data about the alarming decline in coral reefs and reef fish in the South China Sea.

The second phase could include additional participants such as China and other Southeast Asian coastal states, which could translate into more data for a South China Sea-based network of MPAs.

While there remain plenty of obstacles to regional marine scientific research cooperation, the prospects for a networked marine protected area could ensure peace-building, a surplus of goodwill and a fish savings account for future generations.

James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins/SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.

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