The Debate

Traversing the South China Sea: Safety First

The territorial disputes get all the press, but the real threats to shipping are far more mundane.

By Muhammad Taufan for
Traversing the South China Sea: Safety First
Credit: Pixabay

As a vital artery of trade for many of the world’s largest economies, the South China Sea has garnered significant attention. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that roughly 80 percent of global trade by volume is transported by sea. Of that volume, 60 percent of global maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea carrying an estimated one-third of global shipping.

The South China Sea is therefore undoubtedly a critical commercial gateway for a significant portion of the world’s merchant shipping, and an important economic and strategic subregion of the Indo-Pacific.

Shipping Incidents in the South China Sea

In the region of South China Sea, Indonesia, and Philippines, Allianz Global Corporate Report reported that from 2007 to 2017, more than 252 shipping incidents occurred — the largest number of incidents by region in the world. In 2017 alone, there were 30 shipping losses in this region, the top rank in terms of shipping casualties and incidents globally. Losses included actual total losses of ships as well as constructive total losses recorded for vessels of 100 gross tons or over.

Most vessel losses in the South China Sea were from cargo and fishery vessels. The top three causes of losses were foundered vessels, wrecked/stranded vessels, and fire or explosion. These causes typically are the results of structural failure, flooding, and fire on board. In addition, human error and extreme weather are among the biggest contributors to shipping incidents in the South China Sea, as well as in other regions.

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Recommendations to Improve Ship Safety

To prevent ships being lost, states, the shipping industry, and other stakeholders must work together to strengthen the effectiveness of ship safety control measures in three major areas: ship structure strength; buoyancy and stability; and fire protection.

In terms of ship structure strength, ships must be built strongly enough to withstand the forces to which they are subject at sea. The strength of ships largely depends on their materials, the calculation of the steel thickness required for safety, and the integration of static forces as well as dynamic forces.

Buoyancy and stability is the second key area of ship safety control. Buoyancy can be defined as the sum of the downward weight of the ship and the upward forces of the water, reflecting Archimedes’ principles. Stability is the ability of the ship to keep upright and to withstand heeling. Among factors that can affect buoyancy and stability are the ship’s maximum loading limit, whether the sea is heavy or calm, the speed of the ship, and the ship’s design.

Fire protection is the third key focus of maritime safety. There are three elements of fire protection that should be maintained: namely, choice of materials used in the construction of ships; the presence of fire fighting equipment; and special training for ships’ crews. By improving compliance with all of these measures, the risks to ships at sea could be diminished.

As extreme weather remains a significant cause of maritime incidents worldwide, the role of meteorological agencies is paramount. The provision of information and specific advice by meteorological agencies to ships at sea is vital.

Another key factor affecting the safety of navigation is the use or development of technology. Currently, safety-enhancing technology is already finding its way into shipping, from crew monitoring and electronic navigation, through shore-based monitoring of machinery.

Regional Cooperation Frameworks: Overview and Recommendations

In a regional context, port states in the Asia-Pacific have established the Tokyo Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Organization, which has the objectives of developing an effective port state control regime in the Asia-Pacific region through cooperation of its members and harmonization of their activities.

Another key organization dealing with maritime safety affairs in the region is the Asia-Pacific Head of Maritime Safety Agencies (APHoMSA). The APHoMSA comprises the heads of maritime agencies from a number of States in the Asia-Pacific, including China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. It focuses on the development of regional cooperation, marine environment protection, safety at sea, and maritime incident response.

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In order to maintain and enhance the safety of navigation in the South China Sea, states bordering the South China Sea should optimize their practical and concrete cooperation within the ASEAN-China Framework Joint Working Group. In particular, as currently ASEAN member states and China are in the middle of negotiating the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, it is suggested that the CoC could incorporate key maritime safety elements such as search and rescue, safe speed, and communication procedures.

Another recommendation to improve the safety of navigation in the South China Sea is that the littoral states could explore the possibility of adapting a version of the Cooperative Mechanism (CM) that operates in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and is organized by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The CM is a framework through which littoral states and other stakeholders in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore promote cooperation on maintenance and enhancement of the safety of navigation and protection of the marine environment in the Straits.

In conclusion, as shipping lane in the South China Sea contribute to around one third of world trade, the safety of vessels traversing the South China Sea is critical to the global economy. More than one quarter of global shipping losses occur in the South China Sea, which has been the top shipping loss hotspot for a decade. The total shipping loss in this region is almost double that of the next highest loss region, the East Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Preventive and cooperative approaches must be applied in order to address the key threats to shipping (foundered vessels, wrecked/stranded vessels, and fire/explosion). States, the shipping industry, and other stakeholders of shipping in the South China Sea must ensure the effectiveness of ship safety control in three major areas: ship structure strength, buoyancy and stability, as well as fire protection.

Moreover, strong cooperative measures through different frameworks should be intensified, including through the Tokyo MoU, APHoMSA, and ASEAN-China JWG as well as with other key international organizations including the IMO and International Hydrographic Organization (IHO).

Muhammad Taufan works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia. The view is his personal view and not of the Ministry.