At the 9th Philippines-Vietnam Joint Permanent Working Group on Maritime and Ocean Concerns (JPWG-MOC), held on November 17, both countries agreed to resume bilateral joint maritime scientific research which has been stopped since 2007. This move has been welcomed by supporters of science diplomacy in the region as it will help boost cooperation in marine scientific research and further our understanding of the natural characteristics of the South China Sea. This commentary draws from the history of the joint research initiative as well as critical changes that have taken place since it was paused to provide some practical suggestions for the next JPWG-MOC to consider.

JOMSRE-SCS, 1994 – 2007

The Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS) was agreed between late President Le Duc Anh of Vietnam and President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines in 1994. Its objective was to enhance friendship between two countries through cooperation in marine scientific research and improve knowledge of the marine environment and resources in the South China Sea. Under JOMSRE-SCS, four expeditions were carried out in different locations from 1997 to 2007, with a focus on the Spratly Islands area. The data collected offered some valuable insights into understanding the South China Sea and its biodiversity. According to the results of the expeditions, while the status of the coral reefs in the Spratlys were evaluated from “good” to “very good”, the situation of its reef fish was quite alarming. It was estimated that the densities of reef fish in the Spratly Islands decreased about one third from the first expedition in 1997 to the fourth expedition in 2007 because of over-fishing. In 2008, Vietnam and the Philippines decided to end the first phase of the program but committed to resume its second phase in the future.

Despite being a bilateral endeavour, scientists from other countries, in particular ASEAN member states, were invited to take part in the expeditions as well. China also expressed interest to join the initiative. At the end of the first phase, the Philippines and Vietnam seemed to agree that future expeditions would be expanded to include ASEAN member states, China, and international organizations. But attempts to start the second phase of JOMSRE-SCS have been unsuccessful, until now.

Important Relevant Developments in the South China Sea

There have been two important developments in the South China Sea that Vietnam and the Philippines should take into consideration for the future expedition.

The first is the award of the arbitral tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration case in 2016. According to the arbitral tribunal, no feature in the Spratlys can have a maritime entitlement of more 12 nautical miles. The implication of this is that there will be a pocket of high sea of the South China Sea located between the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and covering some Spratly features. Marine scientific research carried out in this area should follow rules relevant to the high seas stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.

The second development is that the South China Sea region is currently facing two new environmental challenges: climate change and marine plastic pollution. According to estimates, the waters of the South China Sea are predicted to become 0.3 to 0.35 pH more acidic by the end of the century, which could cause decreases in the distribution, abundance, and size of its marine species. Meanwhile, the alarm has also been raised about marine pollution from plastic waste in the region. It is stated that half of the volume of plastic leaked into the oceans across the globe comes from six South China Sea coastal states, namely China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. More research should be done to better understand these new challenges in the South China Sea and suggest solutions.

Practical Suggestions for JOMSRE-SCS 2.0

This commentary provides three practical suggestions that the JPWG-MOC could consider for the implementation of the renewed joint expedition, namely its location, participants, and scope of research.

Regarding the location of the joint expedition, future surveys could take place in areas belonging to the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as the southern South China Sea’s high seas while avoiding entering within 12 nautical miles of Spratly features that are above water at high tide. This choice is consistent with both UNCLOS and the South China Sea arbitral award. In particular, conducting expeditions in the high seas would save Vietnam and the Philippines from potential complications arising from their relevant domestic law relating to marine scientific activities by foreign vessels in national waters.

Location of the Potential Expedition with 10 largest features in the Spratlys

(For illustration only. Created using data from Flanders Marine Institute (2019), Maritime Boundaries Geodatabase: Maritime Boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (200NM), version 11)

Regarding participants to the joint expedition, as mentioned earlier, at the end of the first phase of the JOMSRE-SCS, Vietnam and the Philippines intended to expand the participation in future expeditions to other countries, in particular to ASEAN member states and China. With the participation of Brunei and Malaysia, the location of the expedition could include areas within their exclusive economic zones. With the participation of China, surveys could be carried out in its exclusive economic zone in the northern part of the South China Sea, while avoiding disputed territories such as the Paracels and Macclesfield Bank. In addition to these, countries outside the South China Sea region could be invited to join, particularly for expeditions carried out in the high seas. From a legal perspective, the high seas are open to all states to do scientific research; and from a practical perspective, more participants means additional support for the research.

Regarding the scope of research, Vietnam and the Philippines could include in the agenda of their expedition new types of surveys in order to understand the status of two major challenges that the South China Sea is facing currently: climate change and marine plastic pollution. For instance, surveys could be undertaken to find out the impact of the increased ocean acidity to the coral reef in the waters surrounding the Spratlys as well as to measure the level of contamination of microplastic in different locations of the South China Sea. This type of research would be very helpful in finding solutions to these challenges.

In conclusion, the resumption of the joint maritime scientific expedition of Vietnam and the Philippines will offer a good opportunity to better understand the characteristics of the South China Sea and the challenges that it is currently facing, and may help inform solutions to deal with them. It will also help improve cooperation in marine scientific research in the region, which has long been advocated as a good way to build confidence between coastal states.

The author would like to acknowledge the precious help of Professor Robert Beckman, Head of the Ocean Law of Policy, Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore in the completion of this commentary.

About Vu Hai Dang

Vu Hai Dang is a Senior Research Fellow in Ocean Law and Policy at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.