How the territorial dispute in the South China Sea is all about fish, and what that tells us about world order and American foreign policy.
A nuclear-aspirant North Korean lobbing No Dongs into the Sea of Japan, Vladimir Putin’s Russia testing the willingness of the self-appointed custodians of the post-Cold War settlement to defend it, and the inescapable imperative to implement an international agreement that halts the progression of climate change—clearly, the United States faces a plethora of foreign policy challenges in the status quo; it is not with a single great threat with which the United States must contend but a whole slew of problems that each impel action. So one must ask—what are the nature of these problems? Are there higher-order commonalities between them that may inform our grand strategy?
To answer these questions, we ought to look to the Pacific, most specifically to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This conflict is emblematic of the type of international issue that presents the greatest challenge to the United States. On one hand, China seeks to expands its territory, through force and, well, semi-clever island building. It’s a zero-sum conflict between regional actors, resembling the traditional geopolitics of yore—an exercise of power in the name of self-interest at the expense of other states. In this matter, one might say it cleanly fits a neorealist model.
Yet, at the same time the South China Sea is the site of a separate but interrelated problem: overfishing, illegal fishing, and—as a result— declining fish stocks. Fishing is a core component of the Chinese economy, accounting for 3 percent of GDP and employing ~8 million fishermen. As coastal stocks have dwindled, Chinese fisherman have moved into contested water to compete with the fishing industries of several other nations. As a consequence, fishing has been conducted at an alarmingly unsustainable rate—fish stocks have declined from 95% of their 1950s levels, and might soon be exhausted due to illegal fishing. Furthermore, the decline of fish stocks has severe regional implications—the average person in China and South East Asia consumes a remarkably large amount of fish, around 24.2 kilograms of fish a year, and fishing is a massive component of regional economies. It merits, then, to pose the central question of how regional governance of common pool resources can be established for the fisheries of the South China Seas? This is a question of both international and regional import given that regional food shock may have significant consequences on international food prices and contribute to regional instability. Indeed, as the example of the Syrian refugee crisis highlights, regional problems no longer have strictly regional consequences.
The example of territorial disputes in the South China Sea has two fundamental strategic dimensions: a quasi-realist imperative to balance China and protect the international order, and the neoliberal necessity of inviting China to the negotiating table as a necessary stakeholder in the fish stocks of the South China Sea. The second imperative is as important as the first— without Chinese cooperation, the US simply does not have the power, nor the mandate to prevent Chinese illegal fishing. Without a permanent resolution that all stakeholders assent to, the only potential Nash equilibrium, to borrow from game theory, that could result will be either total control on the fish stocks by one or more states to the exclusion of others or instability and infighting that leads to the depletion of the fish stocks entirely. In both cases, conflict is likely to erupt as dwindling resources provoke even more aggressive competition that, in turn, reduces fishery capacity even further. The situation necessitates, then, the implementation of some sort of multilateral diplomatic settlement like a Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) that has proved effected elsewhere at managing fish stocks. Yet a necessary precondition for regional cooperation of this nature is the external balancing of Chinese aggression and provocation in the South China Sea.
This type of challenge—which require both an oppositional relationship in one respect but a cooperative one in another characterizes many of the international strategic challenges the US faces in the status quo. For example, the U.S vehemently opposes Russia’s territorial ambitions vis a vis Crimea and its military support of Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria. Yet, the United States must cooperate and cooperates with Russia on several other fronts: counter-terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, space exploration, counter-narcotics efforts, climate change, combating piracy, and scientific advancement—just to name a few. It would not be within the U.S’ best interest to simply abandon cooperation in these mutually beneficial areas due to Russia’s revanchist tendencies.
All this shows that a ‘flat’ word characterized by interdependence and interconnectedness ensures that regional challenges have international implications; the proliferation of global challenges that necessitate collective action demand a strategic emphasis on multilateral cooperation and international institutions. The greatest long term threats to global order all necessitate such internationally coordinated responses: climate change, global health crises, and nuclear proliferation. The international network of institutions and agreements that constitute the ‘international order’ all help to facilitate global cooperation through dialogue, reduced transaction costs, international norm creation, economies of scale, and massive efficiency gains. Thus, challenges to the international order must be met with appropriate resistance, yet the United States must cooperate with those same revisionist actors on matters of mutual interest. Truly, the greatest foreign policy challenge the United States faces is the question of structuring a grand strategy that considers these twin, perhaps antagonistic imperatives.