A healthy ocean is key to China’s ecological civilisation

The co-chairs of a special policy study, on how China can manage the ocean to balance protection and production, share their findings

shangdong marine aquaculture
In the Bohai Sea, offshore aquaculture like this has been encouraged as a more environmental alternative to coastal aquaculture (Image: Liu Yuyang / China Dialogue)

The ocean is fundamentally important for humankind and vital for the world’s economic development. Globally, ocean-based industries are critical providers of employment and income for three billion people. The ocean also holds the potential for the future development of new and expanded industries.

A healthy ocean environment is a prerequisite for drawing on these benefits. It is disturbing that the global ocean is facing growing threats, in particular global warming and acidification under ever-increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and overexploitation of natural marine resources.

How to develop a sustainable ocean economy is now discussed at the highest level, at the United Nations, G7, World Economic Forum and in boardrooms around the world.

The ocean and ecological civilisation

In 2017, the China Council for International Cooperation on the Environment and Development (CCICED) initiated a special policy study with several aims: to identify ocean and coastal issues of priority interest to China, to map relevant ongoing national and international ocean initiatives and undertakings, to suggest how China could complement and contribute to these efforts, and to recommend areas that could be relevant for China to take leadership on. The study – Global Ocean Governance and Ecological Civilization: building a sustainable ocean economy for China – involved an extensive group of experts from China and beyond.

What is CCICED?


The CCICED was founded in 1992 as a high-level international advisory body with the approval of the government of China. By championing sustainable development, it has built a bridge between China and the international community on environment and development. A platform of exchange, it has enabled the international community to understand China and support China’s engagement with the world.

More than half of China’s population now resides along the coast, where 60% of its national GDP is produced. More importantly, the recent rapid development of China’s economy and social wellbeing was initiated in the coastal cities. Currently, China’s key ocean-based industries are tourism, fisheries (both capture and mariculture), shipbuilding and shipping, offshore oil and gas, and building of infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels. Renewable ocean energy and seabed mining, as well as ocean-based biotechnology, are emerging as potential and likely future large-scale industries. In many of these sectors, China is a world leader in terms of the scale of its industry, and as such, contributes to setting global standards.

At the same time, China, like many other coastal nations, is facing the reality of seeing its coastal seas declining in quality, caused by increasing discharge of terrestrial pollutants, land reclamation, overfishing, and pollutants from mariculture. The nature of the ocean ecosystem is both fragile, highly dynamic, and interconnected at all scales. Therefore, there is a need to manage and govern the ocean with an ecosystem-based integrated approach to strike a balance between protection and production.

Recommendations for the 14th Five Year Plan

The policy study is now completed. The timing is rather opportune, because this year China will finalise its 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), laying out its socio-economic development blueprint for 2021-2025.

Our study recommends that the effort laid out in the 13th FYP on strengthening the ocean economy shall continue in the 14th FYP, and more importantly, clearly bring into the framework of “Beautiful China” the importance of the ocean environment as the basis of life on Earth.

We emphasise that the ocean environment will undergo substantial change due to both climate change and the growth of new and innovative ocean industries. The scale and scope of these changes challenge current management regimes. There is, therefore, an essential and urgent need for China to develop integrated ecosystem-based management frameworks that capture this dynamic development in nature and ocean economies. We also suggest that China can take international leadership on issues and actions supporting sustainable ocean industries, both ongoing and emergent, and promote international cooperation in matters relating to sustainable ocean management.

In the report, we encourage China to support the use and development of green technologies that support all its ocean-based industries. To secure the use of best available knowledge, we recommend establishing a formal mechanism at the national level, such as a scientific advisory body, to underpin coordinated and holistic use of knowledge in instituting overarching policies on the development of a sustainable ocean economy.

Because of the highly dynamic nature of the marine ecosystems, we also recommend setting up organisational structures/bodies, guidance and legal frameworks that enable cross-boundary (administrative and land–ocean connectivity) and cross-sectoral coordination and communication, both on and between national, regional and local levels. Specifically, it is recommended to establish a coordination mechanism across relevant government ministries to support the development of policies fostering and underpinning ecosystem-based integrated ocean management in China.

Last but not least, we suggest to develop and implement a clear, directed and strategic gender program to enhance women’s participation in all aspects of the ocean economy, including industry, management and governance.

The findings and the recommendations of our study have been presented to the State Council of China via CCICED. They should be already in the hands of the panel members involved in drafting up the 14th FYP. We sincerely hope that our recommendations will be reflected in its policy statement.