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3C Report: The China-Philippines Maritime Dispute and Food Security

Team: PACOM

Week of: April 05, 2020


Local fisherman[1]


Geographical Area | Continent | South China Sea; Asia

Countries Affected | China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia


Summary: China’s incursion into the reefs and artificial islands of the Philippine Sea is causing rejection and discontent from the Philippine government. Many ships supposedly belonging to the Chinese government have been roaming the sea for months, entering into areas whose sovereignty lies or is claimed by the Philippines. This incursion is worrying not only at the political level but also for the damage it is causing to the species that live in the area, and thus threatening food security. Fishing is one of the main economic sources in the area and fish and seafood play a key role in the diet of coastal communities. Therefore, activities harming the maritime ecosystem and fish stocks will have a considerable impact in economic, social, and even security terms.

Areas of High-Security Concern: Environmental degradation, food security, human security

Current Claims: China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia

Current Conflicts: Territorial and maritime dispute

Groups Involved in Conflict: Chinese Coastguard, Chinese maritime militias vessels, local fishermen from the claimant countries, coastguards from claimant countries

Major Capital Industries: Shipping; trade; fishing; oil and gas

Potential Industry Concerns: Fish stock depletion is damaging to the fishing industry and has the potential to indirectly damage other industries as a result of local fishermen turning to piracy or other forms of violence.


Areas of Caution:

  • Environmental

  • The environmental implications of the South China Sea dispute have been significant, all the more so because of how diverse the marine life is in its waters. Many of the countries involved in the disputes have encouraged overfishing and intensified shipping to reinforce their territorial claims, and China has even built artificial islands. These processes are very damaging to the ecosystem. The militarization of the area only creates additional stress as strategic needs prevail over environmental concerns and create more air and water pollution.

  • Humanitarian

  • The fish present in the Sea provides an important source of cheap and nutritious food to the coastal communities of the region, which largely depend on the fish stocks for their food security. Fish and seafood provide between 25 and 65% of their diet and are crucial sources of protein, amino acids, and minerals.[2]

  • The very communities most directly affected by both climate change and the South China Sea disputes are the same groups who rely most on the nutrients provided by fish as a key part of their diet.[3] A direct implication is that it is these very communities who are most susceptible to malnutrition as food sources continue to decline.[4]

  • The nature of these communities means that in the event of such malnutrition, they will be unable to turn to alternatives such as meat, eggs, vitamin supplements, or imported fish from elsewhere as these will be too expensive.

  • These worrying trends are likely to have long-term impacts such as potential mass migration by affected communities to elsewhere in Asia in search of employment and a better life, or as a result of flooding, as well as potentially greater vulnerability to disease.

  • Economic

  • Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM) warn that damage to the reefs could cost over PHP 30 billion (USD $617.9 million) each year.[5] The poaching of clams in the reefs is expected to cost the Philippines up to PHP 33.1 billion (USD $681.8 million) annually.[6] Approximately 4 million people depend on the fishing industry for their income.[7] However, the true figure is likely to be far higher given the increasing amounts of illegal fishing that occurs, and the unregulated nature of fishing in the region that has arisen as a result of the disputes. These millions are provided with a livelihood that, if taken away, leaves little occupation or employment options. The potential for unrest, violence, or disruption as a result of future unemployment should not be discounted.

  • The economic factor is directly linked to the food security element, as poverty and the lack of food are mutually dependent. Those predominantly at risk of food insecurity are fishing and farming communities who are now embroiled in the center of the dispute. Thus, the depletion of fishing stocks will have deep economic and social consequences on these populations.

  • Social

  • The South China Sea dispute has proved dangerous to Filipino fishermen. For instance, in June 2019 a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a fishing boat from the Philippines, causing it to sink and leaving 22 fishermen floating at sea before being rescued by a Vietnamese boat.[8] This illustrates the dangers posed to local fishermen by the dispute.

  • Local communities in the Philippines are likely very wary of the potential damage to the reefs, especially those whose livelihoods are dependent on the health of the marine environment, such as fishermen and seafood sellers. If the situation continues, protests or strikes will likely take place to protect the fishermans’ way of living.

  • The mass loss of jobs as a result of damage to fishing resources by vessels from China or other countries would result in financial distress, social isolation, as well as anger toward the authorities. These social factors are common contributing factors to the radicalization of individuals and groups of people, therefore raising the risk of insurgency, piracy, or terrorism by the coastal communities or other frustrated civilians in the Philippines in response to this situation. This is further exacerbated by the extremism landscape that already exists in the Philippines.

  • Security

  • The possibility of masses of fishermen losing their job almost simultaneously has the potential to jeopardize security in the region. Idleness and poverty are often major factors that contribute to political instability and violence, and if China keeps on enforcing its will in the SCS, conflict in the form of a guerrilla-like movement will be likely in the medium term. This prediction does not only apply to Filipino fishermen but also the many other stakeholders in the SCS whose livelihoods are impacted.

  • As evidenced by the cases in Somalia and Western Africa, the environmental and economic damage caused by foreign-funded activities can result in the proliferation of piracy. Multinational companies can also have a role in this sense. Local fishing industries are often a victim of environmental mismanagement and the impact can be monumental, as fishermen rely on healthy fish populations for income but also to feed themselves, their family, and the community. The loss of this lifeline can foster the hopelessness and grievance that leads to violent and illegal actions for self-sustainment, and piracy is somewhat natural for disgruntled fishermen given their boating knowledge. Therefore, an increase in piracy is a strong possibility in the medium term.

  • Violent clashes between fishing fleets and Chinese-sponsored “maritime militias” have the potential to cause more casualties as resources become scarcer and territorial tensions mounts. This might give China a pretext to further militarize the area, but perhaps also to withdraw with the right leverage. Although, if China does increase its military presence in the region, it is unlikely to suffer sanctions. Given China’s strength and its unwillingness to make concessions, cooperation will be nearly impossible in the short term. As a result, countries involved in the region will likely continue to reinforce their positions by occupying key areas.

  • Considering the heightened risk of piracy and further militarization; private businesses, especially those engaged in maritime trade may increase their security measures.

Predictive Analysis

  • Who: China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia

  • What: Degradation of living conditions of coastal and agricultural communities due to environmental damage and ensuing protests, insurgency, piracy, or terrorism.

  • Why: The potentially lethal combination of dwindling fish stocks as a result of human-caused environmental degradation alongside overlapping competing fishing zones provides a very real potential for conflict. While the focus is often on the possibility of conflict between militaries in the region, an eruption of fighting between fishing communities may be more likely in the short to medium term. The affected populations are experiencing some of the highest levels of illegal fishing, reliance on fish for nutrition, poor governance, low levels of knowledge about current stock levels, and vulnerability to climate change. This combination makes future conflict almost certain and creates the potential for rebellion against governments that could develop into terrorism. Two of the involved countries in particular - Indonesia and the Philippines - are currently struggling with terrorist and extremist threats, and the potential for exacerbated radicalization leading to increased violence linked more closely to environmental or economic frustration is a real possibility.

  • When: Within years or even months.

  • How: The damage will likely be caused by Chinese fishing vessels proliferating in the SCS to assert Beijing’s claims, namely in the fishing regions near the Philippines; but boats from other countries may also contribute. Environmental degradation will result, likely leading to public outcry by local fisherfolk in the form of protests or purposeful damage to Chinese vessels. In conjunction with extremism currently existing in the region, this issue may escalate to an insurgency, piracy, or terrorism.

CTG Recommendations


CTG recommends that, despite the accepted diplomatic challenges, all the claimant governments come together to promote research on the impact of the dispute and climate change on fish stocks and biodiversity, and to foster mutual compromise and trust-building. All claimant countries must be more transparent about their fishing activities and practices, as well as more willing to abide by a set of more responsible, sustainable, and less environmentally damaging fishing methods. CTG recommends that the ASEAN states and China come together to create a maritime code of conduct to reduce the negative impact on the environment and food security. The more opportunities or institutions are created for cooperation in this specific area, the more likely agreements can be reached. Even more, ideally, the creation of a protected marine area where no fishing by any party occurs is highly recommended. Given the vast amounts of vessels that travel daily, this is likely to only be possible in specific areas of the South China Sea. Despite the major obstacles in place, member state governments must ensure they have policies in place to reduce the vulnerability faced by the coastal communities whose health and livelihoods are most at risk. Governments should develop economic and welfare policies that specifically target fishing communities to ensure there is a safety net in place when they require it. The world’s leading aid donors should also consider assisting these fishing communities, as it is likely governments will not be able to cover these costs in full. If these recommendations are not followed, there is a risk that future conflict erupting in the region is down not to military moves by China or others but instead as a result of serious food insecurity.

[1] Fisherman In Vietnam by Matheus Riolfi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0).

[2] The Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security in Southeast Asia, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, December 2000, http://www.fao.org/3/x6956e/x6956e07.htm

[3] The South China Sea’s Marine Environment in Decline Amid Territorial Spats, Radio Free Asia, August 2018, https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/fisheries-southchinasea-08232018142438.html

[4] Fishing, not oil, is at the heart of the South China Sea dispute, The Conversation, August 2016, https://theconversation.com/fishing-not-oil-is-at-the-heart-of-the-south-china-sea-dispute-63580

[5] Damage caused by China in West Philippine Sea could affect food security - scientists, Philstar, April 2021, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2021/04/02/2088602/damage-caused-china-west-philippine-sea-could-affect-food-security-scientists?via=webuproar

[6] Ibid.

[7] South China Sea Succumbing to Pollution Due to Political Impasse, Voice of America, September 2017, https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/south-china-sea-succumbing-pollution-due-political-impasse

[8] Sinking of Philippine Boat Puts South China Sea Back at Issue, The New York Times, June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-philippines.html



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