Essay: How can marine conservation improve diplomatic relations?
A case study of US and China
This is an adaptation of a piece written for the master’s-level seminar class “Diplomacy and Society”, taught within the 2021-2022 academic year.
Diplomacy and cooperation are key to solving our planet’s most pressing social and environmental issues. This is commonly accepted. However, less discussed is the enormous potential of these very acts of conservation and protection to help us improve our diplomatic ties and work together more effectively in all sectors.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the ongoing programs between Chinese and US institutions for the protection and study of Green Sea turtles along the Chinese coast. This example is the perfect case study for showing the power of oceanic animal and plant conservation to bridge gaps between increasingly hostile global powers at the societal and academic levels.
The ocean and its conservation are a prime candidate for fostering greater diplomatic ties because of its incredible emotive power and the “sense of awe and wonder” it invokes in almost all of us, particularly with the growing popularity of TV documentaries such as Blue Planet.
Indeed, the oceans represent around 70% of our planet’s surface and 64% of them are considered international space. The US is one of the largest controllers of ocean territory in the world – 8.7% of all controlled ocean – and, though China has a far smaller percentage, it is also a growing power with clear interests in expanding its influence and competing with the US.
The fact that around 40% of the global population lives within 100km of a coast – and the growing trend towards reducing meat consumption – both mean that oceanic management, conservation, and diplomacy are more important than ever before. Seaweed and other oceanic products are high on the list of possible everyday foods for the future.
The coming eight years present the perfect opportunity for building on existing international cooperation, as is exemplified in the UN’s declaration for the years 2021 to 2030 to be the Decade of Ocean Science.
UNITED OVER GREEN SEA TURTLES
Over the past years, diplomatic relations between China and the US have become steadily more heated. The issues surrounding Taiwan, the South China Sea construction projects, and general influence on the global stage have seen these two superpowers clashing at every step.
However, on some fronts there has still been room for hope and progress. In the same South China Sea that has caused so much trouble, a perfect example of a more subtle diplomacy has been played out between Hainan Normal University and multiple US conservation and research institutions for the protection of Green Sea turtles.
This project is now approaching its ten-year anniversary and has directly led to the creation of a US-China Eco Partnership on behalf of sea turtle conservation. Indeed, as a Public Diplomacy effort it has also been an unquestionable success, with the US ambassador releasing two turtles in 2016 and other major officials from both sides attending events every year since, accompanied by official meetings and discussions on wider cooperation.
Furthermore, the volunteer training centre at Hainan has received multiple awards from US organisations including the State Department. These programs have allowed for academic exchange programs, particularly with Hawaiian students who then engaged in language and cultural courses as well. Such exchanges and cultural interactions are a vital step towards lowering tensions between these superpowers and promoting greater ties and understanding in future generations.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCIENCE DIPLOMACY
The cooperation between China and the US on the protection of Green Sea turtles is a perfect example not only of the role marine conservation can play in improving diplomatic relations but also of the importance of international organizations and educational institutions play in that process.
Despite scientific cooperation being mandated by international law, it is often down to NGOs and other non-state actors to create and maintain momentum on these topics. It is these groups that prove most effective in gathering experts and deploying their knowledge to effect policy change at the international level.
This subsection of science diplomacy provides one of the best paths towards the amelioration of diplomatic relations between nations due to its truly common interest for all parties and the exorbitant financial costs involved making it prohibitively expensive for even the wealthiest nations to tackle alone.
As a result, cooperation on marine conservation, as seen between the US and China, is clearly one of the most reliable and effective means of improving diplomatic relations from the bottom up.
Such cooperation is one of the best placed among the various branches of science diplomacy both because of its near universal relevance and ever more pressing importance in the fight to protect our planet.
Working together to protect the world’s oceans might just be the best way to bring our ever more divided world back together while keeping it alive and healthy for many generations to come.
REMINDER. This is an adaptation of a piece written for the master’s-level seminar class “Diplomacy and Society”, taught within the 2021-2022 academic year.