Much has happened this week since Beijing and Manila announced mutual temporary fishing bans that lower the tension in their dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea that came to a head with a stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). In summary:
- Vietnam has repeated its rejection of China’s imposition of the above mentioned seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea.
- Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea.
- China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”.
- Filipino oil company, Philex Petroleum, says it is seeking rigs to drill for natural gas near the Reed Bank off Palawan, waters disputed with China. China’s CNOOC might supply them.
- North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.
The satellite picture above is the first reported sighting at sea of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag. It was taken by a U.S. imaging company, Digital Globe, on December 8, and shows the vessel in the Yellow Sea some 100 kilometers south-southeast of Dalian, the port where the converted former Soviet carrier has been refitted. The carrier sailed from Dalian on November 29 to undertake its second sea trials. We have photos of it leaving port and of the first test flight of the carrier-based J-15 fighter in PLA-Navy colors that is being developed to equip China’s planned carrier fleet here.
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.
When you don’t know what to do with a problem, punting it to a committee is usually a safe option. It buys time to come up with an answer if nothing else. That is what China has done with North Korea’s most recent outburst of belligerency in calling for international six-party “emergency talks” to be held in Beijing in early December.
The six would be the same sextet that have been fitfully trying to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear program — the two Koreas, the U.S., Russia, Japan and China. Those talks have been stalled since April, 2009. Neither South Korea nor Japan have shown much enthusiasm for going along with China’s latest proposal; the U.S. and Russia are still to be heard from, but are likely to be as non-committal.
Meanwhile, the chairman of North Korea’s parliament, who is close to his country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, has been invited to Beijing next week. With the four days of joint U.S.-South Korea naval exercises now underway in the Yellow Sea and North Korea, according to South Korean press reports, deploying surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea and readying land-based surface-to-air missiles, a bit of firm two-party talking between China and North Korea might be the most effective — and most needed — emergency diplomacy.
China gets the U.S. aircraft carrier off its shores that it previously managed to browbeat Washington to keep at bay. There is no more provocative symbol of naval power to Beijing. The Peoples’ Liberation Army is building a carrier but doesn’t have one in its fleet yet. The arrival of the USS George Washington and its battle fleet only serves to underline that.
The joint naval exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting from Sunday in the Yellow Sea following North Korea’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island may spill over into the 200 mile exclusive economic zone that China claims in the Yellow Sea (and is asserting vigorously in the East China and South China Seas). The exercises will likely spill over the line that Pyongyang, if barely anyone else, recognizes as the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas. If they do, Pyongyang has promised a “sea of fire” in what it calls the West Sea of Korea. A display of U.S. naval prowess in retaliation would be the last thing Beijing would want to see at this point.
The military cartography is typically tortuous. Yeonpyeong and two other South Korean islands lie well to the North Korea side of the main part of Pyongyang’s demarcation line, though they lie in tiny enclaves that Pyongyang, bizarrely, recognizes as South Korean waters and which it connects with two narrow channels to undisputed South Korean waters. But the three islands lie on the South Korea side of the Northern Limit Line that the U.N. and most of the rest of the world recognizes as the maritime boundary between the two Koreas, and which is to the north of North Korea’s line. The disputed part of the Yellow Sea is plenty large enough for trouble, and gives Pyongyang a by-definition reason to say it is being attacked — and to fire back — if any foreign guns are fired in those waters, whether directed at it or not.
All of which will make policymakers in Beijing wonder even harder over the next few days if their long-standing unwavering support of the ever unpredictable Kim Jong Il’s regime is worth it. A tail can wag a dog only so often.
Their fear is not so much a flood of refugees should Kim’s dynastic regime collapse in chaos if Beijing withdrew its political and economic lifelines. It would be an inconvenience but a manageable humanitarian operation. Their bigger fear is of a pro-Washington government replacing Kim’s, either Seoul-led or under a U.N. mandate, and the possibility of the 25,000 U.S. military personel now in South Korea being deployed up to the Chinese border in an area that Beijing’s plan is to make into a economic tributary state; the pacification through prosperity strategy that it tends to deploy in troublesome quarters.
GIs, even GIs in blue hats, just a river’s width away from Liaoning and Jilin provinces would be an affront to a leadership in Beijing that is intent on making its mark as the region’s power. It would make a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea seem like a fraternal visit.
The naval exercises the PLA has started in the waters between China and the Korean peninsula are routine annual ones. Just as are the ones the South Korean and U.S. Navies hold in the same waters, the latest of which start shortly, the day after the Chinese ones have ended. But both sets are only latest in a series of military exercises by both sides in the western Pacific this year and will do little to ratchet down the growing perception that the high seas have become an expanding touchpoint of tension between Beijing and Washington.
While the U.S. defense establishment has pointed up the PLA’s growing naval strength, particularly its submarine fleet, China has been playing up its territorial claims to the South China Sea as a core national interest. In July, Beijing took umbrage when the U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, addressed the issue at an ASEAN regional forum, her remarks being considered as “interference” though she called for no more than a peaceful resolution among all the claimants. There was more than a touch of symbolism when the Chinese submersible, the Jiaolong, set a depth-diving record earlier this year by going to the bottom of the South China Sea and laying a Chinese flag on the sea floor. Shades of Apollo astronauts planting the U.S. flag on the moon.
There is little doubt that Beijing is discomforted by the presence of U.S. Navy warships in waters anywhere near its coasts, and is wary of U.S. joint exercises not just longstanding ones with Japan and South Korea but more recently with Vietnam. The coming U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, which will include antisubmarine drills, are in part intended to send a warning to North Korea in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo. Beijing wants regional stability. It may be seeing matching gunboat diplomacy for gunboat diplomacy as the way to get it.