Beijing Tells Seoul to Stay Calm and Carry On, After Chinese Fishermen Sink a South Korean Coast Guard Boat

BY DAN DE LUCE / OCTOBER 12, 2016 / ForeignPolicy.com

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 adeadly 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.Read more…

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