May 25, 2011

A Glimmer of Cooperation in the South China Sea

Last night, Christine emailed me this story from the China Daily reporting that China
has proposed a tsunami warning system
that would link vulnerable countries
in the South China Sea region, including China, the Philippines, Malaysia,
Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. Yu Fujiang,
deputy director of the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Center with
the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), warned an audience at the International
Coordination Group for the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System in
Beijing that seismic activity in the region could have devastating consequences
for China and its neighbors.  Yu noted
that “The March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which wiped out coastal communities
in northeast Japan and left more than 25,000 dead, caused
alarm in countries with exposed coastlines and highlighted the urgent need for
some type of warning system
,” according to the China Daily . “The
system would help these countries share data to reduce the damage caused by a
,” Yu said. “If the
proposal is passed by the group, the system will probably be in operation
within five years
,” the China Daily reported. 

CNAS is currently leading a project on the South China
Sea region
where CNAS researchers will analyze evidence of conflict and
cooperation in an effort to judge, on balance, where trends in the region may
be leading. That China is prepared to cooperate with its South China Sea
neighbors, at least around natural disaster preparedness, may be a positive
sign that the region is tilting more toward cooperation. Yet it is too early to
tell. Indeed, it is hard not to see that while the tsunami warning system is a
positive development for cooperation in the region, it also helps China
buttress its interests in the region, including offshore drilling and other
resource extractive operations that could be exposed to potential tsunamis. According
to the China Daily, “After the Japan
tsunami, the SOA proposed to the State Council, China's Cabinet, that
assessments be carried out on the consequences of potential marine disasters to
key offshore projects
,” the kind of offshore projects that could bring
states into competition with each other over access to resources in the region.


I am cautiously optimistic, however. Kicking of a discussion
of a tsunami warning system may provide a good point of entry for states in the
region to have a larger conversation about the more difficult challenges facing
South China Sea states. And if the tsunami warning system is not dead on
arrival with others in the region, perhaps we will see other opportunities
arise to deal with the challenges where cooperation is not as easy; challenges
where national interests could, if not handled delicately, trump regional
cooperation. We will have to wait and see.