China-ASEAN Blue Economy Partnership: Toward A Peaceful, Stable, Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region and Sustainable Use of the Sea
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China-ASEAN Blue Economy Partnership:

Toward A Peaceful, Stable, Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region and Sustainable Use of the Sea

Angel Damayanti

Universitas Kristen Indonesia, Jakarta


The concept of Blue Economy, initiated in Rio+20 Conference in 2012, has recently called for states to arrange their roadmap on economic development in the “blue-green economy” framework. With its three pillars, namely the use of marine resources for economic growth, improvement people's welfare and sustainable use of the sea, some states have also agreed to collaborate with other countries in the region on the basis of bilateral and/or multilateral, enhancing economic growth through the sustainable use of the sea. On one hand such roadmap and cooperation initiatives will encourage countries to increase trade and investment, especially in marine sectors as well as to contribute to food security and poverty alleviation. In this regard, ASEAN should play a primary role as it has launched the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 performing the commitment to promote cooperation and to maintain regional peace, stability and prosperity. But on the other hand, without a clear commitment to solve a number of problems at sea, the blue economy partnership is less likely to run optimally. ASEAN and its counter-partners must first manage three things. They are a clear management in dispute seas, countermeasures against high numbers of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and sea-piracy and a common perception about marine resources that might be utilized and managed through a regional platform and joint regulatory mechanism. Therefore, using the concept of Blue Economy from United Nations and Sustainable Development Goals, ASEAN member-states and China might realize cooperation in developing sea-infrastructure, fishery products processing industry, marine biotechnology industry, marine tourism, marine services and human resources.

Keywords: Blue economy, sustainable use of seas, Sustainable Development Goals.


Oceans are vital for humanity and life on earth as it cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface. However, only 5 percent of the world’s oceans have been explored. In the context of population growth and the current use of coastal and marine ecosystems, oceans are not only increasingly becoming a source of food and energy, but also contribute to poverty eradication. Oceans create sustainable livelihoods and decent work, provide food and minerals, generate oxygen, absorb greenhouse gases and mitigate the impacts of climate change, determine weather patterns and temperatures, and serve as highways for sea-based international trade. With an estimated 80 percent of the volume of world trade carried by sea, international shipping and ports provide crucial linkages in global supply chains and are essential for the ability of all countries to gain access to global markets (UNCTAD 2016).

Coasts and oceans are receiving increasing attention in the media and in national and international policy discussions. More countries are developing national ocean policies to protect their coastal and marine ecosystems, while, at the same time, viewing oceans as a relatively untapped source of economic growth. The national policy relating to marine management in the region and the utilization of the exclusive economic zones, especially for the coastal countries, is certainly necessary. But without an agreed and common perception of sustainable marine utilization as well as a strong commitment to maintaining the sea in collaborative ways for economic and security purposes, the quality of the ocean will decline and give impacts to the mankind.

This article accordingly discusses the concept of “Blue Economy” in Indo-Pacific region which lies in Indian and Pacific Oceans, and how ASEAN and countries in the region are able to take advantage of existing opportunities and overcome challenges that are yet completely settled. A number of conventional and non-conventional problems remain marked the waters in Indo Pacific region, ranging from sea-border conflicts to the high numbers of illegal fishing (IUU) and sea-piracy around the Straits of Malacca, from the various perception of the concept of Blue Economy to the conflicting arrangement in sustainable use of the sea. Utilizing the Blue Economy concept defined by the United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals, this paper will elaborate how ASEAN can play its role in realizing the Blue Economy Partnership that provides benefits to all parties and in creating a peaceful, stable, prosperous region and sustainable use of the sea in Indo Pacific region.

The Concept of Blue Economy

The importance of oceans for sustainable development is widely recognized by the international community and was embodied in “Agenda 21” and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development resulted from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the “Johannesburg Plan of Implementation” resulted from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, “The Future We Want” the outcome document of the 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. All these commitments were set under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), together with its implementing agreements - the 1994 Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI of UNCLOS and the 1995 United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. These legal frameworks arrange all activities in the oceans and seas that must be carried out as the basis for national, regional, and global action and cooperation in the marine sector. This also includes the conservation and sustainable use of all areas of the oceans and their resources.

The “Blue Economy” concept is an expansion of the concept of “Green Economy” that initially came out of the 2012 Rio+20 Conference and emphasizes conservation and sustainable management particularly  in oceans. The term is primarily based on the premise that healthy ocean ecosystems are more productive and form a vital basis for sustainable ocean-based economies (UN DESA 2014a). The “Blue Economy” concept mainly seeks to promote economic growth with three pillars, namely the use of marine resources for economic growth, improvement people's welfare and sustainable use of the sea. At its core it refers to the decoupling of socioeconomic development through oceans-related sectors and activities from environmental and ecosystems degradation (UNCTAD 2014; UN DESA 2014a). In a blue economy, the environmental risks of and ecological damage from economic activity are mitigated or significantly reduced (Economist Intelligence Unit 2015). It is generally understood to be a long-term strategy aimed at supporting sustainable economic growth through oceans-related sectors and activities, while at the same time improving human well-being and social equity and preserving the environment (UNEP 2013; UNCTAD 2016).

To apply the concept of “Blue Economy,” the Rio+20 outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development has set some policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication such as: (1) subject to international law, (2) respect each country’s national sovereignty over their natural resources, taking into account its national circumstances, objectives, responsibilities, priorities and policy space, (3) be supported by an enabling environment and well-functioning institutions at all levels, with a leading role for governments and with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, (4) promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, foster innovation and provide opportunities, benefits and empowerment for all and respect for all human rights, (5) take into account the needs of developing countries, (6) strengthen international cooperation, including the provision of financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer to developing countries, (7) promote productive activities in developing countries that contribute to the eradication of poverty, (8) address the concern about inequalities and promote social inclusion, including social protection floors, (9) promote sustainable consumption and production patterns and (10) continue efforts to strive for inclusive, equitable development approaches to overcome poverty and inequality. To ensure that all countries implement the above mentioned principles accordingly it is important to have such an inclusive, transparent, strengthened and effective multilateral system, in terms of international organizations and regional cooperation.

The Significance of China-ASEAN Partnership on Blue Economy in Indo-Pacific

Having said that regional cooperation is vital to deal with the global challenges of sustainable development in oceans today, the Indo-Pacific region, which is connected by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, needs an arrangement on this “Blue Economy” concept. The Indo-Pacific concept itself was initially used by the Australian government in its 2013 Defence White Paper to refer to China and its relationship with the United States (US), India, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia. The idea also refers to Asian countries bordering the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean and includes the ten ASEAN member-states located in the middle of the two oceans. Rory Medcalf (2014), Director of the National Security College, Australian National University, then defines the contemporary Indo-Pacific as an economic and security connection between countries in the Western Pacific region and the Indian Ocean region that creates accordingly a strategic system. Such strategic system according to Brewster (2016) is geographically expanding and reaching China and India whose economy grow rapidly in the last two decades.

There are three main reasons why Indo-Pacific region need to realize the “Blue Economy” for their national and regional development, namely: (1) the strategic role of Indian and Pacific Oceans in the region particularly for Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) and sea-based trade route, (2) the high number of threats in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean regions posed by both state and non-state actors due to its natural resources including fisheries as well as oil and gas reserves which in turn trigger some countries to change their national maritime policy, and (3) many developing countries locate in the region and they depend on their seas for its national economic development, in which the concept of “Blue Economy” is very relevant.

As a result of globalization, Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait to South China Sea plays an important role for transportation and connectivity as well as sea-based trading systems. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) confirmed that in 2016 around 30% of the world's sea-based trade and nearly 60% of global liquid oil and natural gas (LNG) products sailed from the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean and leading to the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea. Oil products are sent to East Asian countries in which about 80 percent of China's oil imports, around 90 percent of South Korea's oil imports and 90 percent of Japan's oil imports brought from the Middle East and/or Africa crossing the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.

A report from the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA, 2014) also confirms that more than 15 million barrels oil per day flow from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean, Malacca Strait and South China Sea, to Asian countries and the United States. According to the report, the amount of 15 million barrels per day has increased significantly in the last two decades. In 1993, according to the US Naval Analysis Center, around 7 million barrels of oil and petroleum products, which were equivalent to 20% of the world's sea oil trade, passed through the Strait of Malacca. This strait also plays an important role as it is the main entrance and the shortest sea route from the Persian Gulf to East Asian countries.

Not only the sea is vital for its role in sea-based trading systems, but it is also important for its natural resources for the benefit of all humanity. Indo-Pacific waters, which include the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, specifically the Malacca Strait, the East and South China Seas have an abundant supply of fisheries and other aquatic products as well as oil and gas reserves. On one hand, the sea gives many advantages particularly for littoral states in which its marine products support the economic development of the states. On the other hand, the marine wealth attracts transnational crimes occur at sea. Such transnational crime is committed by non-state actors who not only transcend national boundaries but also have a global impact.

Terrorist attacks at sea is a relatively new issue in Southeast Asian countries as the state’s leaders of these countries have to deal with radical groups and terrorists working at sea currently. This is true as in the case in Sulu Island, the Philippines and in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia in 2016. Sea-piracy is also a problem for coastal states like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. As reported by the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC-IMB), piracy attacks in the Malacca Strait, Singapore, Indonesian and Malaysian coastal nearly 36% of all piracy attacks in all the world's oceans. The ICC-IMB reported that the number of piracy crimes in the Malacca Strait of Singapore, the coastal waters of Indonesia and Malaysia has reached nearly 700 attacks in 2007-2014 (ICC, 2010 & 2014). Pirate attacks also a concern for Indian Ocean as there were 26 attacks in 2013, 34 attacks in 2014, 24 attacks in 2015, 17 attacks in 2016 and 15 attacks in 2017 (ICC, 2017).

To ensure the safety of sea-based trade routes and to protect the supply of petroleum and other marine products from the threat of organized transnational crime, the Indo-Pacific countries accordingly increase their naval power. Along with their economic growth, several countries in the region have also changed their maritime strategy, modernized their naval power and increased their military budget. The perspective transformation of the Indian Navy's defence strategy and policy in 2015 confirms this. The maritime policy that changed from "Freedom to use the Seas" to "Ensuring Secure Seas" adopted a holistic approach from Indian naval and coast guard forces which mainly carried out as the Indian government perceived an increase in the source, type and intensity of threats mixed between traditional and non-traditional threats. To this end, the Indian government directs their naval power to develop into a balanced multi-dimensional force, combining the use of ships, submarines and aircraft with special satellites and information systems (Indian Navy, 2015).

Likewise, as written in the Chinese Defence White Paper in 2019, the Chinese Government realizes that threats to its maritime are likely to come from both state and non-state actors. As China perceived the US has significantly increased its defence expenditure and accordingly undermined global strategic stability, it gradually shifted the focus of the PLA Navy from "offshore waters defence" to a combination of "offshore waters defence" and "open seas protection". In addition, with the strengthening of US military alliances with its Asia Pacific counterparts, China has seen the region to become a focus of major country competition, bringing uncertainties to regional security. Therefore, Chinese authorities emphasizes its naval power on “combat readiness and military training in real combat conditions.”  In line with its economic growth over the past two decades, Chinese authorities have also enabled its PLA Navy to build a combined, multi-functional, flexible and efficient naval combat structure. By saying this, the Chinese PLA Navy has continued to improve its capabilities for prevention and counterattack strategies, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support (China’s National Defence, 2019).

Nevertheless, the modernization of Chinese PLA Navy and a drastic increase in military spending despite the reasons for safeguarding its national sovereignty, people security and territorial integrity, have also triggered similar reactions from neighboring countries that feel threatened. Although the country has confirmed its growing strength for peaceful purposes coupled with developing friendly cooperation, the lack of regulation of naval power in the region and the absence of mechanism to oversee the development of naval powers in Indo-Pacific region are of the concerns. As argued by Rousseau, the weak position of a country's military power increases the perception of threats that subsequently leads to security dilemmas and military competition (Ng, 2005). In turn, military competition triggers military alliances between large and medium powers, and most likely increases tensions between countries. This is to confirm that Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have conducted joint military exercises with the US while the overlapping claims in the East and South China Seas remain problematic with China.

Similarly, to continue the US Rebalancing Strategy and/or to expand the US Pivot in Asia Pacific, in 2017 the US called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy (The US Department of Defence, 2018). By this strategy, the US perceived the region as a great potential area for economic cooperation to gain benefit from that particular cooperation and at the same time to expand the alliances and partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries as it has seen China posed a threat economically and militarily to the regional stability and security. It is therefore strengthening the quadrilateral partnership with Japan, Australia, and India, through which the US welcomes India to be a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner on one hand and support the strong leadership of Japan on the other hand. Through the “free and open Indo-pacific”, the US also continues to support ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture and seeks to further empower it. As the US has enjoyed the constructive engagement with ASEAN and its mechanisms in the region (The US Department of Defence, 2019).

After being appointed in 2014, the Indonesian President, Jokowi was determined to make Indonesia as an advanced, strong, prosperous and sovereign maritime country so that it could become a Global Maritime Fulcrum and to be capable of spreading wealth, justice and peace in a sustainable manner not only for the Indonesian people, but also for the entire nation global citizens. The Indonesian Global Maritime Fulcrum policy focuses on the five pillars namely to rebuild the Indonesia's maritime culture, to preserve and manage marine resources, develop marine infrastructure and connectivity, to enhance maritime diplomacy and to develop its maritime defence power (Dahuri, 2016). The development of maritime defence power is vital as Indonesia is a very open archipelago with a number of unresolved border issues and nearly 100 outer islets that need priority management. (Indonesian DOD, 2015) With a limited budget to safeguard such a great maritime territory, Indonesia applies a collaborative way for the improvement of all of its forces mainly the naval power and modernization of its main defence system tools.

As far as the defence white paper is concerned, we might say that all Indo-Pacific countries, mainly the major powers such as China, India, the US and Indonesia have common yet conflicting interests with regards to maritime issues across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The importance and vulnerabilities of Indo-Pacific maritime coupled with its management are of their interests. Some of these countries are concerned with the secure and safety navigation as well as sea-based trading system coupled with sea-border issues. The rest focusses on the organized transnational crimes that work at sea such as maritime terrorism, illegal trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Despite their differences, almost all states believe that cooperation and joint arrangements are needed to overcome the existing problems and threats that occur at sea.

Furthermore, as many developing countries in Indo-Pacific region depend on seas for their national economic growth, the region needs a mechanism to arrange their sea-management in collaborative ways. For this purpose, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as one of regional associations in Indo-Pacific region has a great opportunity to facilitate the interests of major powers, middle powers and its member states in maritime issues and the implementation of “Blue Economy” in the region. Since its establishment, ASEAN managed to prove that it was able to promote regional peace, prosperity and stability, particularly in Southeast and East Asia region.

In the case of South China Sea overlapping claims for instance, ASEAN prevailed to bring China to sign the Declaration on the South China Sea in 1992 and then followed by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea (DOC) and the 2017 Framework of the Code of Conduct (COC). All frameworks urged all state parties to apply a peaceful resolution of jurisdictional dispute, without resorting to force and the exercise of self-restraint. Moreover, all agreements also provide opportunities for mutual cooperation in maritime safety, marine environmental protection, search and rescue operation, action against transnational crimes and the implementation of the principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as the basis for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea overlapping claims.

ASEAN has become a primary driving force in maintaining regional peace, prosperity, security and stability through several mechanisms where all members can have dialogue and consultation on political and security issues in a way to confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy as well as on economic and social culture cooperation. The mechanisms include the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC). In addition, there are also ASEAN-led mechanisms namely ASEAN +3 (China, Japan, South Korea), ASEAN +6 (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India), ADMM Plus with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) including ASF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security (ISM-MS), ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (ISM CT-TC) and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).

Moreover, in November 2018 ASEAN and China have just declared their commitment to support the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which acknowledge the collective regional cooperation to effectively address non-traditional security threats and transnational challenges including terrorism and transnational crimes. By this commitment ASEAN and China explore the opportunities that will arise from new scientific, digital and technological innovation to support the national and regional economic growth and in turn gradually to reduce the tension in Indo-Pacific region. It is also to perform their commitment to continue the existing dialogue and exchanges in maritime economic cooperation as well as to encourage partnership on Blue Economy.

Under the BRI scheme and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, China is likely to be a strategic partner not only for ASEAN member-states but also for South Asian countries to promote marine ecosystem conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and marine resources, including cooperation in marine science and technology, ocean observation, hazard mitigation and ocean economy development. In the case of Indonesia with the vision of being Global Maritime Fulcrum, there are at least 12 economic sectors that can be developed cooperatively: 1. Capture fisheries, 2. Aquaculture, 3. Fisheries processing industry, 4. Marine biotechnology industry, 5. Energy and mineral resources, 6. Maritime tourism, 7. Sea transportation, 8. Industry and maritime services, 9. Resource areas of small islands, 10. Coastal forest mangroves, 11. Sea-infrastructure and 12. Human resources development.


The growing attention of the international community on sustainable marine use in the Blue Economy concept requires specific arrangements in the Indo Pacific region. For this purpose, ASEAN and its strategic partner, especially China accordingly need to develop cooperation that guarantees the realization of Blue Economy that has been proclaimed since 2002. This cooperation is expected not only to increase national and regional economic growth with the sustainability use of the seas, but also to reduce the tension that has not been resolved in the Indo-Pacific region toward a peaceful, stable, and prosperous region.


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