MANILA - The Philippines and other claimants to the South China Sea must soon find an immediate agreement to address environmental issues amid China's militarization activities.
"We need to see something give. There has to be some progress made to build confidence, to create momentum toward a peaceful resolution or at least management. Fisheries management and environmental conservation is the most likely place for that to happen. It's not going to happen at oil and gas or demilitarization," said Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
In an interview on ANC's Headstart, Poling said unregulated fishing in a bid to establish claimant countries' sovereignty in the disputed waters has led to a decrease in marine resources.
"While talks are going on in the ASEAN, the Philippines and other claimants need to go to China now and say we need a separate negotiation on fisheries management and we need it today," said Poling.
He pointed out that leaders tend to focus on the military and big picture legal concerns in the South China Sea dispute.
"But the fact is, the first people to feel it if there's a fish stock collapse are going to be the coastal community around the region," Poling said.
Apart from depleting fish stock, China's militarization activities have destroyed over 3,000 of reef and 15,000 acres of fish and marine life nurseries.
"If fish stocks collapse there, it's not just going to hit fisherfolk in Palawan, it's going to hit fisherfolk throughout the archipelago and everywhere in Southeast Asia," he said.
Poling also said that the Philippines should file more protests against China, raising its issues with every international fora and demand international support.
"Before the arbitral case was determined in July 2016 you had over 50 countries that issued public statements saying they would consider it legally binding and would call on Beijing to comply," said Poling.
The Philippines won a landmark victory in July 2016 before a United Nations-backed arbitration court which invalidated Beijing's 9-dash line claim over nearly all of the disputed waters. However, China repeatedly refused to recognize the ruling.
"But by the time it came out, the Philippines stopped asking countries for support. As of today, only 8 of those 50-some countries have actually reiterated that call. There is no support from Europeans, for most of ASEAN and that's because the Philippines isn't asking for support," Poling added.
Maritime confrontation in the South China Sea is inevitable with the presence of Chinese militias in the disputed waters, he added.
"They sit out there and they just stare down the Philippines trying to get in the way and intimidate them. Sooner or later they will kill somebody. These are non-uniformed, poorly trained civilians being used as military wing by Beijing," he said.
He added, "Its incumbent on all the claimants to find the path forward to manage these disputes before something breaks."