China said Wednesday that South Korea needs to stay “reasonable and cool-headed” even after Chinese fishermen rammed and sank a South Korean coast guard speedboat in the Yellow Sea.
China’s appeal to South Korea followed a warning Tuesday from Seoul, which said its coast guard vessels would be armed and ready to use to force against Chinese fishing boats that defy their orders.
The argument started last Friday, when — according to officials in Seoul– a 100-ton Chinese fishing boat slammed into a 4.5 ton South Korean speedboat that was trying to expel the Chinese fishermen from waters off the western coast of the Korean peninsula.
South Korean officials summoned China’s ambassador to express the government’s outrage over the incident and said that its coast guard vessels would be equipped with mounted machine guns from now on.
“We will actively respond to Chinese fishing boats that obstruct justice by using all possible means if needed, such as directly hitting and gaining control of those Chinese fishing boats as well as firing common weapons,” Lee Choon-jae, deputy chief of the South Korean coast guard, told reporters.
The spat between South Korea and China comes after Beijing has riled up most of its maritime neighbors — and the United States — with its expansive claims and aggressive behavior. China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea, provoking U.S. naval patrols in order to defend the right to free navigation, and sparking a tougher posture from Vietnam, Indonesia and others. In the East China Sea, China and Japan are at loggerheads over Chinese natural gas platforms that Tokyo says are both encroaching on disputed territory and potential military sites.
Tensions are already running high between Beijing and Seoul over South Korea’s decision to deploy U.S.-made missile defenses on its territory. Beijing views that as a threat despite Seoul’s insistence that the weaponry is aimed at countering the threat posed by North Korea. Until the announcement on missile defense, relations had improved in recent years years amid expanding trade and shared concerns over North Korea’s volatility.
The feud between China and South Korea over fishing rights in the Yellow Sea, which started about 15 years ago, has ramped up in recent months. South Korea’s ministry of defense alleges that Chinese fishing boats were caught operating illegally in 520 cases between January and May of this year, compared to 120 instances in all of 2015.
Although no one was injured in last week’s incident, the dispute has taken a deadly turn in the past. Clashes left a Chinese fishing boat captain dead in 2014 and claimed the lives of a South Korean coast guard member in 2011 as well as two Chinese fishermen in 2010.
Much to the irritation of neighboring states, China also subsidizes its fishermen. In the South China Sea, Beijing pays its fishermen to operate in far-flung waters as a “maritime militia” to back up its far-reaching territorial claims. In the Yellow Sea, however, there is no evidence that China is encouraging fishing boats to sail into Korean coastal waters, or that the fishermen are part of a wider strategic land grab, experts said.
Still, China does not impose any penalties on fishermen that are poaching in South Korean waters and Seoul “feels China does nothing to crack down on this illegal fishing,” said Gregory Poling, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“As long as they make it back to the line in China, there have been no consequences” for the fishermen, he told Foreign Policy.
While South Korea demanded that China rein in its fishermen and recognize the “gravity” of the situation, Beijing accused Seoul of endangering its citizens.
“Concrete measures must be taken to ensure the safety and lawful rights and interests of Chinese personnel,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press conference.
With a more prosperous Chinese population ready to spend more on seafood, coupled with dwindling fish stocks in Chinese waters, the country’s fishermen have an incentive to take a more aggressive approach in Korean coastal waters. And the Chinese fishermen often exploit tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang by taking advantage of the de facto maritime boundary between the two adversaries.
The Chinese fishermen sometimes sign contracts in North Korea to cross the boundary — known as the Northern Limit Line — to fish in South Korean waters. Reluctant to trigger a military conflict with the North, South Korean authorities have tended to take a cautious approach to the Chinese fishermen when they are operating around the boundary line.
But in June, South Korean naval ships and U.S.-led forces staged an operation to push out Chinese boats fishing in the mouth of the Han River estuary, which lies near the sea border between South and North Korea. Under the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, the area is designated as a “no man’s land.” No foreign ships are allowed to sail in the military buffer zone except those registered by either South or North Korea.
Photo credit: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images