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.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. Adolfo Paglinawan on

    You once posted an old map of the South China Seas, referring to an old study of yours for a thesis or something. In that article you referred to the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, but your observations were sketchy.

    Please look into it again and discover that the United States used that treaty to ward off China from recovering its old islands by wedging the losing Chiang Kai Sek and his Republic of China based in Taipei from the winning Mao ZeDong Peoples Republic of China based in Beijing and to legitimatize it warming up with the enemy Japan to serve as its point nation in the American Lake it was building in the Pacific all the way into the North and South China Seas.As a result China, ROC or PROC were never invited to San Francisco.

    Korea was so mad at the accommodations made to Japan that it ended up being uninvited. Russia did not sign the treaty which was heavily criticized by India as the US started railroading the sessions even over the head of the Britain.

    The American Lake was bounded on the east by the US mainland, on the north by Alaska, on the south by Northern Marianas (Guam and all), in the west by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and in the south west by the Philippines for the entirety of the Pacific Ocean.

    This is why for so many years, because the US forces are perched at Okinawa, the Russian’s had problems with the Kurils, and the Chinese had it own share of troubles at Daioyu (Senkaku) with Japan, at Nansha (Spratlys) and at Xisha (Paracels) with the Philippines and Vietnam. The last three groups of islands were never returned to China after their occupation by the Japanese.

    By a single action of President Rodrigo Duterte talking to China, the American domination of the South China Seas has been abolished. The unilateral doctrine of freedom of navigation by the United States stands a great challenge in this area, as the Lake has been truncated by the Philippines.

    In this great decision, the Philippines has been catapulted worldwide to be a giant slayer, sending what was once a single superpower to what is now a multi-polar world, with the US, Russia and China sharing regional powers.

    Suddenly a forgotten East Asian nation, once proxy to American interests, has earned international status. In 1986, it was hailed by liberal democracies for terminating a dictator. Today, it is paradoxically being feted as being under a strong-man rule who has declared an independent foreign policy.

    By the way, China never received a single cent of reparations from Japan.

    I will not be surprised if most of China’s Dong Feng sophisticated hypersonic glide missiles with up to five nuclear warheads each are pointed at the land of the rising sun.

    These DF missiles were originally designed as killers of aircraft carriers but now they have grown into intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability that can reach the US east coast (New York) in less than an hour.

    If revived, the Joint Seismic Memorandum of Understanding between China and the Philippines, that Vietnam insisted on joining, coverts the South China Sea into a trilateral lake between China, Japan and the Philippines, a lot larger concept than mere joint stewardship of the fishery potential of the entire area.

    Already, China has finally connected the Philippines to the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) making the Philippines the gateway to the South Pacific.

    If we play our cards right, we can again recover the pride of having been China’s Emporium in Asia in the 1400s.

  2. Hi Sass, thank you for that woderful article you wrote about ‘Shared Stewardship of thw South China Sea’. Full of wisdom and inclusiveness. Thank you once again. Tears almost welling off my eyes. Wish every political leaders around SCS can read your article and move their hearts to act accordingly. –Andrew