Chinese trawlers fishing in South Korean waters have become commonplace. Violent clashes with South Korean coast guards are increasingly frequent. With hindsight, this weekend’s fatal fight at sea that left a South Korean coast guard captain dead and another wounded was sadly inevitable.
The coastguard reportedly died after being stabbed by the captain of the fishing vessel with a shard of glass from a broken wheelhouse window after the South Koreans had boarded the vessel. The captain and crew of eight were arrested after the struggle.
South Korea has seized more than 470 Chinese fishing vessels so far this year. Seoul’s patience with Beijing over stopping the fishing in its waters is running thin. Yet the incident is unlikely to provoke the same sort of diplomatic crisis that followed the ramming in disputed waters of a Japanese coast guard vessel last year by a Chinese fishing boat. Beijing’s response to Seoul has been conciliatory, not belligerent. Relations between Beijing and Seoul are on a firmer footing than those between Beijing and Tokyo. Whether that leads to a reining in of China’s fishing fleet from the crab- and anchovy-rich waters of the Yellow Sea is another matter.
Another trawler clash with a foreign coast guard patrol boat. This one fatal and, unlike the incident in September that turned relations with Japan acrimonious, not in disputed waters.
Reports say that a trawler rammed a South Korean coast guard vessel in an effort to help a fleet of some 50 trawlers fishing in South Korean waters off the southern South Korean city of Gunsan to flee back to Chinese waters. The fisherman and the coast guards came to blows before the ramming boat sank. Eight of its crew were rescued from the water but one later died. At least one more is reported missing. Chinese and South Korean rescue boats have been dispatched to the area.
Chinese trawlers are frequently detained for fishing illegally in the South Korean part of the Yellow Sea as they expand their fishing grounds — 300 a year, according to South Korean authorities. A South Korean coast guard died in a similar incident in 2008. There is no suggestion at this point that this latest incident was a deliberate testing of the limits of Beijing’s self-declared economic zone off its coast, and relations between Beijing and Seoul are on a sounder footing than those between Beijing and Toyko were last September, but the Yellow Sea is turning out to be dangerous waters in a multitude of respects.
The crew of the Chinese fishing trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, seized by Japan last week in disputed waters in the East China Sea has returned home after being released by the Japanese authorities, but that is not the end of the matter. The captain of the vessel, Zhan Qixiong, remains under arrest in Japan. Prosecutors have a week to decide whether to lay formal charges against him. The incident has caused increasingly strong diplomatic protests by Beijing, which has canceled talks due later this month with Japan over developing oil and gas fields in the disputed waters.
The consequences of Tuesday’s collisions between a Chinese fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, and two Japanese coast guard patrol vessels in disputed waters in the East China Sea are threatening to get out of hand. The captain of the Chinese trawler, Zhan Qixiong, has been handed over to Japanese prosecutors who will decide if he is to face charges of illegal fishing in Japanese waters. Increasingly strong diplomatic protests are flying back and forth, or at least from west to east. Beijing has demanded the release of the trawler and its crew, says that Tokyo can’t apply Japanese law in Chinese territory and that their broader relationship will be at risk it does.
The incidents, which occurred separately less than an hour apart, took place off the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and which are claimed by both countries and also Taiwan, though controlled by Japan. This is not the first time the uninhabited islands have caused conflict between the two countries. Japan has repeatedly complained to China about Chinese trawlers and research ships entering what it says are its waters, while China has complained about interceptions of Chinese fishing trawlers, of which, Japanese coast guard officials say, there has been a noticeable increase off the islands since mid-August.
China is becoming more assertive about what it sees as its territorial rights in the western Pacific, including in the disputed areas of the South China Sea as well as in the East China Sea, where China’s growing naval might is unsettling to Japan, even as economic relations between the two countries have been warming in recent years after what has been a chilly period. One question now is whether the fishing trawler incident will affect talks due later this month over the contentious joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea.