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S. China Sea Dispute Blamed Partly on Depleted Fish Stocks

Protesters march towards the Chinese consulate during a rally in Manila's financial district of Makati, Philippines, May 11, 2012.
Protesters march towards the Chinese consulate during a rally in Manila's financial district of Makati, Philippines, May 11, 2012.
BANGKOK - China and the Philippines have announced temporary bans on fishing in areas of the South China Sea they both claim as sovereign territory. The bans may help cool tempers after ships from the two sides faced off in April. But, political analysts say a more permanent solution is needed to address a cycle of conflict partly caused by depleting fish stocks.

China every year imposes a ban on fishing for several weeks in a northern part of the South China Sea.

Beijing says the restriction, used for more than a decade, allows fish stocks to replenish.

While the Philippines and Vietnam complain it is just another way for China to assert its claims on maritime territories that they also dispute.

Ian Storey is with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He says while Beijing's annual ban on fishing may seem like a good idea for fish stocks he agrees it may have an ulterior motive.

"Well, I think the primary reason for this fishing ban is for China to be able to demonstrate its claimed sovereign rights in the South China Sea," said Storey.

Storey says if the dispute was taken to the international court of justice Beijing could cite the ban as an example of exercising effective and continuing jurisdiction in support of its territorial claim.

Kim Bergmann is editor of the Asia-Pacific Defense Reporter and Defense Review Asia. He says the unilateral ban had put China and the Philippines on a path of confrontation.

"But, now that Manila has also come up with its own ban I think that that's a way of making sure, or at least, assisting a process of negotiation, and it's likely, in my opinion, to reduce tensions at least in the short term rather than heighten them," Bergmann noted.

Filipino and Chinese ships faced off last month over Chinese fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China.

The tensions led to protests from both sides to respect their sovereign territory.

China claims most of the South China Sea, putting it in conflict with competing claims by Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

One of the central drivers of the South China Sea dispute is competition over mineral and fishing-rich areas.

Bergmann says geologists believe the South China Sea contains enormous reserves of oil and natural gas, much of it in disputed areas.

"Cumulatively, the South China Sea probably has about 80 percent of the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia," Bergmann added. "So, we're talking many billions of barrels of oil and many trillions of cubic feet of natural gas."

The ongoing tensions have prevented comprehensive surveys of oil and gas deposits.

But when it comes to fishing the South China Sea is known to be rich. The region provides about ten percent of the world's catch, but growing demand means fish stocks are more quickly depleted.

Storey says competition for fish has led to conflict at sea.

"Certainly, fishing vessels are operating further out and for longer periods because fish stocks are being depleted," Storey explained. "What needs to happen is there needs to be an agreement among various countries in Southeast Asia and China to try and preserve these fish stocks. But, because of the territorial dispute that hasn't happened."

China's halt to fishing will go through August 1 while the Philippines did not indicate a time period for its ban.