In search of a delicate balance
The theme of World Environment Day 2020, which is on June 5, is to protect biodiversity in the world. Based on the Convention on Biological Biodiversity, last year, the United Nations and its member states launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-30), which aims at restoring the relationship between humans and nature in the coming decade. To fulfill this year's slogan "Time for Nature", international law and global governance are most needed to achieve the goal of protecting biodiversity. At the moment, no international agreement serves this purpose better than concluding the agreement of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, which has been under negotiation since 2004.
Nonetheless, old questions arise at the global level, namely how to balance sustainable development and environmental protection, how to balance the interests between developing and developed economies, and how to facilitate a global consensus or compromise on issues deemed to be essential for negotiating parties. China, the world's second-largest economy and largest developing country, provides its own answers to these dilemmas on the usage of biological resources in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. These experiences will have significant impacts on the future of global environmental governance.
Sixty-four percent of the world's oceans are beyond national jurisdiction. There is an urgent need for the world community, particularly the developing countries, to come together and make arrangements for the sustainable exploitation of marine resources, to make sure they benefit not just the powerful nations, but all countries. However, biodiversity in the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction is extremely vulnerable to human activities. The major causes of environmental threats come from pollution arising from seabed activities, fisheries and biomass depletion, and ocean acidification, all of which pose threats to the well-being of the oceans and marine life.
To address these problems, the international community agreed to conduct negotiations on issues related to the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction in 2004. In 2011, a majority of states agreed to form a negotiating agreed "package". In the package, creating marine protected areas and conducting environmental impact assessments are closely related to environmental protection.
China has been a serious participant in the negotiations from the beginning and stands firmly with the developing countries. In 2017, the director of the Department of Treaty and Law at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the negotiations on the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement were the single most important international legal negotiations for the Chinese government at present. China has stood firmly with other developing countries in the negotiations. It has formed an informal alliance that many of the G77 countries in the negotiations to advocate their shared national interests.
China believes that marine protected areas are tools to protect the environment, rather than the goal, as many Western countries claim. A cost-effective analysis should be conducted before acting, and solid scientific evidence and different management tools are the basis for the establishment of any marine protected areas. For China, the protected areas serve not just environmental protection, but also promote the development of the ocean economy.
With regard to the environmental impact assessments, China believes that sovereign states, no matter big or small, should be the core actors. China is cooperating with other countries to advocate the concept that sovereign states can do the best in terms of the substance of the environmental impact assessments and in protecting the environment. Any new institutional arrangements should also comply with the related articles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In all, China's position toward the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction negotiations aims at balancing the goal of sustainable development and environmental protection. There are both economic and political rationales behind it. As of 2019, China's marine economy only accounted for 9 percent of its total GDP, and there is lots of potential to further develop a comprehensive maritime economy by becoming an active participator in the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement. In addition, the Chinese government has advocated creating a "blue economy", which contains not only the traditional ocean economy but also a type of economics that focuses on sustainably using both living and non-living resources in the high seas.
The deep-sea biological resources possess unlimited commercial value, and the development and competition toward natural resources, have been a pressing issue among the developed countries. By applying the latest science and technology, China can build a strong and powerful marine economy to achieve the goal of becoming a 21st-century maritime power.
Furthermore, actively participating in the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction negotiations is in accordance with China's goal of shouldering its responsibilities as a responsible power and strengthening its commitment in global governance. China is not only aiming at becoming a strong economic power, but also desiring to become an international law-binding state and rule-maker in global governance. China, as one of the most prominent players and benefactors of economic globalization, strives to uphold its responsibilities under international law. China, along with many developing countries, is making their voices heard and interests respected in the future of rule and law-making in ocean governance.
As a champion of sustainable exploitation of marine areas and the protector of the international marine environment, China's position in the negotiations on the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement demonstrates that it is adding its weight to the care and protection of the marine environment.
The author is a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.