Seething tensions between China and South Korea over fishing in the Yellow Sea escalated Tuesday with the killing of a South Korean coast guard commando by the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel in hotly disputed waters.
South Korean coast guard commandos finally subdued the captain, and seized his vessel and eight-man crew, said South Korean officials, but not until the leader of the commando team was mortally wounded and another team member was injured. The dying commando and the injured team member were flown to the port city of Incheon, approximately 100 miles to the east, in the same helicopter with the Chinese fishing boat captain.
The incident, the latest in a long series of clashes between South Korean authorities and Chinese fishermen, illustrated the rising confrontation in the fish-rich sea where North Korea has also challenged South Korean authority. South Korean analysts strongly question Chinese claims that such episodes are provoked by fishermen acting solely on their own with no support from their government.
The incident “reinforces the broader perception that the Chinese are a threat,” says Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Mr. Cha predicts the incident will strengthen “the concern that Koreans have had that relations with China are not all positive” despite enormous commercial relations between the two countries.
China in recent years has claimed authority over both the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea while refusing to blame North Korea for two nasty incidents last year against South Korea. The first was the sinking of South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March 2010 with a loss of 46 lives, and the second was the shelling in November 2010 of Yeonpyeong Island, several miles from North Korea’s southwestern coast, in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed.
At the same time, South Korean commandos have been boarding Chinese vessels with rising effectiveness, imposing stiff fines that the skippers of the vessels have to pay on the spot. Already this year the South Koreans have imposed fines in 470 incidents, 100 more than last year. The killing of the commando on Monday echoed an incident more than three years ago in which a South Korean sailor was killed by the crew of a Chinese boat off of Mokpo, a South Korean port 200 miles to the south.
What are China's intentions?
The greater issue is what the incident says about overall Chinese intentions in the seas on the long periphery of the Chinese mainland. China has provoked nations across Asia by disputes over remote islands.
More than a year ago, Japanese Coast Guard members arrested the crew of a Chinese trawler that deliberately rammed a Japanese vessel near the disputed Senkaku Islands, claimed by China but held by Japan, south of the main Japanese islands more than a year ago. The captain was released only after loud protests from China.
This episode is different, however, in that the Chinese are not claiming any islands in the area and are not officially saying that Chinese fishermen have the right to fish in those waters. China’s ambassador to Korea, responding to South Korea’s formal protest, promised a full investigation but asked for videotape of the incident – a request that might be hard to fulfill.
“This is going to further influence sentiment in South Korea,” says L. Gordon Flake, director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “My impression is the Chinese have been testing and pushing all along. Nationalism is now prohibiting China from pursuing a common sense diplomacy.”
Making an example
Choi Jin-wook, North Korea director at the Korea Institute of National Unification, sees the episode as a chance to make an example of the fishing boat captain accused of killing one commando and injuring another.
“The most important thing is they killed a law enforcement officer,” says Mr. Choi. “We will bring him to justice. The Chinese government should respect South Korea’s law enforcement.”
Choi believes Chinese fishing boat captains, possibly with the connivance of their government, intrude on South Korean waters in order to exploit South Korea’s long-running quarrel with North Korea over rights to the seas. "They're very greedy," he says. "They always try to take advantage of this problem.”