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Linh Pham 17:48, 2022/02/08

“Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground” is “a straightforward plea for science rather than national, economic, political, and strategic interests to resolve the struggle for the South China Sea.”


Written by James Borton, an independent environmental policy writer and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute, the book focuses mainly on Vietnam and China, and is “a useful and readable contribution to the literature on the subject.”

This book seeks to raise awareness for the conservation of marine biodiversity and sustainability of fisheries that can no longer be ignored. The book’s division into three separate parts: field notes, ecological politics and science diplomacy leads the reader to the understanding that there's common ground that may lead to policy transformation and even resolution of maritime conflicts. What distinguishes this book from others on the South China Sea is a hybrid of participatory research and field reportage.

On the occasion of the book’s release, The Hanoi Times spoke with the author, who is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at Yale University and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.


I came to Vietnam in 1997 to witness the nation’s renovation or Doi moi, especially following the arrival of the Internet. I was invited by Nguyen Anh Tuan, the founder of VietNamNet to meet with his energetic young bilingual staff, which expressed interest in speaking with an American journalist and learning more about western reporting methods. What was revealed to me is that these new generations of educated young Vietnamese consumed news online and that the government was ill-prepared for the arrival of social media and its impact on Millennials and now Gen Xers.

During this time, Internet cafes were quickly opening up throughout the country. The biggest change I have witnessed over these decades is the success of Hanoi’s reforms that have lifted millions from poverty and prompted a rising optimism among young Vietnamese since almost 70% of the country's 98 million were born after the war. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, I engaged the nation’s new entrepreneurs, who were starting businesses from software companies to spas. It was the Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) optimism in Vietnam’s future that brought to me this New Vietnam. I had a front-row seat in chronicling how this country, one of the poorest in the world, joined the world to become a development success story. 


Over the course of the past twenty-five years, I developed close friendships with some of Vietnam’s leading writers and journalists. As a result, this led me to examine and gain access to sources, many of them subsequently became close friends. Since I am a sailor and waterman, I was propelled to seek out fishermen to hear their stories taken from the East Sea (South China Sea). Several of my Vietnamese friends encouraged me to travel to the coastal areas to gather stories. The South China Sea is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. This was initially not part of my rising development story but satisfied a personal desire to learn how the fishing industry was responding to Vietnam’s entry into the global markets. I also knew that the industry’s fast-paced development often took its toll on the environment. So coastal environment and ecosystems in Vietnam are under pressure from both rapid industrialization and climate change. The drive from Danang to the historic UNESCO recognized Hoi An is lined with resorts and abandoned projects damaged from erosion because they were built too close to the sea. Conversations with both policy experts and marine experts steered me to examine and to better understand that the increasing number of Chinese vessels on the sea and the escalation of extreme weather in the form of typhoons and coastal disasters threaten all fishers. The eco-challenges from the destruction of coral reefs associated with China’s purposeful and reckless transformation of small reefs and rocks into artificial islands with military structures was too big a story to ignore.


As a writer, I saw that the mounting crisis related to sovereignty claims was being driven largely by this intersection of political and ecological features. So, my reporting led me to meet the marginal coastal fishermen. I was following the fish and the unfolding stories. It was natural for me to reach out to those fishers from Haiphong, Danang and Can Tho to document and to report the perils facing these fishers from territorial conflicts and overfishing. I was generously invited aboard fishing trawlers and listened to their sad tales of attacks from China’s maritime offensive in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s steel-hulled vessels rammed and sunk Vietnamese wooded fishing boats.

Other claimant nations, like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesian fishers are all responding to the grave threats of attacks, piracy, climate change, including ocean acidification and coral reef loss. Vietnam’s ASEAN leadership role offers a steady hand at the helm to ensure peace and stability in the region. Also, Vietnam’s marine scientists are fully engaged in establishing more marine protected areas to ensure that fish habitats are neither destroyed nor overfished. They know that oceans matter for everyone.  


China has been trying to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake for the better part of a decade. Beijing’s naval strategy has brought into the disputed sea a flotilla of coastguard vessels, and maritime militia to insure its control of the once bountiful fishing waters. As part of this development, China is the recognized world leader in shipbuilding. Beijing’s enhanced national directive includes at least 3000 reported blue water trawlers and somewhere up to 200,000 fishing boats. The armada of distant fishing vessels enables one boat alone to scoop up as many fish in a week as a local fishing trawler does in a year. Allow me to frame why so many Chinese fishing boats are at sea. China is the world’s leading seafood exporter and the country’s population also accounts for more than a third of all fish consumption worldwide. Since they have already fished out their own coastline, their fishing boats must sail farther into neighboring waters and now as far away as Africa, South America and the Pacific to exploit the waters of island nations. Despite making some reductions in subsidies for their domestic fishery, it has not reduced those for their global fishing fleet. It’s equally important to note that although the South China Sea accounts for 12% of the global catches, more than 50% of China’s global fishing fleet operates in this region. The predatory nature of Chinese fishing practices continues to destabilize the region and upset the fragile marine ecosystem.


I do believe that protecting marine environments and ensuring the ocean’s sustainability is a global issue, and nowhere is it more important than the South China Sea. Science-based voices are vital to protect the region’s oceans, as coral reefs decline, industrial run-off continues, plastics pollution circulates, and overfishing escalates—all this risks irreversible damage. Science diplomacy can establish a useful starting point for regional cooperation to deal with environmental and perhaps geopolitical problems. At the moment, there are increasing science-based conferences and webinars, where marine biologists and policy experts are communicating with one another. What I am witnessing among these biologists and oceanographers alike is that the sea must unite rather than divide. Science is a common and political language that brings allies and adversaries together with technology and innovation to address cross-border challenges. We see the need for this in our climate change crisis and in the current pandemic since no one nation can address this alone.

For years, science has been adopted as a diplomatic tool for peacebuilding by many countries. Science can and does inform policy and has been used in scientific collaboration. It has been effective in the contested Arctic and in the Antarctic. For example, the International Geophysical Year in 1957, paved the way for the Antarctic treaty, an accord achieved during the cold war that continues today to reserve an entire continent for peace and science. So my book argues that science diplomacy through conferences and webinars can and does provide a solid bridge that links science and policy. It provides a mechanism for long-term sustainable scientific collaboration for improving ocean governance and avoiding conflict. More often the marine scientists and oceanographers also built trust and confidence in shared marine surveys. In the past two years both Hanoi and Beijing have held such science-based conferences to address the myriad of environmental challenges in the disputed South China Sea. There’s also encouraging news that the Philippines and Vietnam are planning in 2022 to renew their joint oceanographic marine science surveys in the South China Sea. This is a real-time example of science diplomacy. 



My first introduction to the ancient Cham culture was on Cu Lao Cham, a pristine island about 23 nautical miles off Hoi An’s Central Coast. There I met with Dr. Chu Manh Trinh, a biology and environmental science professor at Danang University. He has been leading students to the island for several years and has successfully educated the local fishers about marine conservation and sustainability. What’s remarkable is that upon arrival to the island, a visitor is greeted at the clean and well-swept dock with neatly stacked recycled trash bags. The harbor’s pristine waters offer a patina of living corals-- jewels of the sea with an iridescent combination of blue, pink, golden-yellow, and green coloration. The 2,300 islanders are harmoniously connected to the East Sea. Like their ancestors, these fishers, some in their small wooden trawlers and many in the traditional round woven basket boats or “thung chai” cast their nets for abalone, sea bass, grouper, lobster, squid, and sea cucumber. The Cham Islands is a marine protected area (MPA) that was established by the Provincial People’s Committee of Quang Nam Province in 2005. Trinh is responsible for mapping out the agreed-upon objectives of protecting natural resources and cultural and historical values of the Cham archipelago. Cham, a 300 square-kilometer archipelago is also referred to as “Me Lao Cham” (Mother of Cham Island). It boasts a 518-meter high mountain with three peaks. Now the Cham remain wary of engaging in the present geopolitical disputes in the East Sea, they prefer fishing unmolested in their own waters and many are now opening dive shops for eco-tourism.


The Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam is home to over 20 million people and has been regarded as the “rice-bowl” for Vietnam. Its unique natural habitat with its thousands of animal species, plants and rice paddies are challenged by accelerating climate change and more. In fact, its river ecosystem is on the verge of irreversible collapse due to the accumulative impact of climate change with increased droughts, floods, saltwater intrusion, and human-made activities like deforestation, pollution, upstream dams, sand mining and disappearing mangroves. This is not just a local or provincial government environmental problem; it must be seen as a multidimensional and multinational crisis. 


With these dramatic changes affecting the livelihoods of millions, there’s a need to draw upon international and global scientific cooperation. It’s a problem that cannot be solved any longer by a simple unchallenged government edict or a “top-down” policy declaration. The rising sea level intruding into the rice fields continues to cause damage to thousands of hectares, especially along with the coastal provinces. The problems must be broken down and the first is to take immediate steps to limit sea-level rise, particularly at high tides. The replanting of mangroves and the protection of those already in place must be regarded as a high priority, if not the highest. I have witnessed young student volunteers from Can Tho University go out into the provinces with their environmental science backgrounds and set up field workshops in citizen science to better inform locals about the documentation of a myriad of environmental or water challenges through free downloadable science apps for measuring water quality. These volunteers are part of the Mekong Environment Forum (MEF), a local-based non-government organization (NGO) based in Can Tho that offers Citizen Science or community-based workshops. As part of a disclaimer, I co-founded the MEF, along with Nguyen Minh Quang. This grassroots participation to address environmental issues involves an active collaboration between scientists and interested local citizens to broaden the scope of research and to help compile data through community-based monitoring and Internet-driven crowdsourcing strategies. The increased prevalence of the Internet and smartphone usage throughout Lower Mekong offers the necessary digital infrastructure for doing so. In addition, as part of this expanded and shared knowledge base, I have heard the conversations between local farmers and student volunteers (citizen scientists) as they exchange practical information about saving water with the installation of automatic watering systems for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees through misting and drip methods. Also, the locals understand that freshwater from the annual wet season can be stored in ponds, lakes, and garden ditches. While we may not be able to stop the Mekong Delta from sinking, we can slow it down with creative and transparent community-wide participatory environmental actions.


Wow, this is a huge question. What have I learned? Well, we only have this one planet and it’s our duty to protect ‘Mother Earth’. She’s all we got. There’s little time to continue living in fear of environmental degradation. With all the latest forms of knowledge production, including artistic and scientific expression through stories, data, and public engagement, there’s an array of expertise to fully engage the critical threats facing the world from climate change and biodiversity loss. Local farmers and fishers know that a community is needed to affect participatory change. The mobilization of informed citizens is shifting policy development away from the state-linked agencies to a grassroots ‘bottom-up approach. This has far-reaching implications for Vietnam’s future.

Thank you for your time!

TAG: vietnam south china sea James Borton dispatches from the south china sea
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