On November 1rst, the South Korean Coast Guard (KCG) reported that it had stopped two Chinese vessels fishing illegally in their waters in the Yellow Sea (known in South Korea as the West Sea), and reportedly used machine guns to fire warning shots toward the vessels, apparently as part of its “more aggressive” attempts to protect its EEZ. In response, about 30 other Chinese vessels surrounded the coast guard vessel, even attempting to ram into it.
In fact, several violent incidents this season have increased tensions between China and South Korea. In October, a small KCG vessel in pursuit of Chinese fishing boats operating illegally, sunk after a Chinese vessel rammed into it. In September, three Chinese fishermen were killed in a scuffle with the KCG. The fishing crew locked themselves in their cabin to avoid arrest, and the coast guard officers threw flashbang grenades—nonlethal, but used to disorient people with bright light and loud sound—to draw them out. The boat then caught fire.
Such incidents are not new. Since 2006, the South Korean coast guard stopped over 3,700 Chinese fishing boats for illegal fishing in Korean waters. With the media and public placing greater scrutiny of the Chinese trawlers, the Korean government has resolved to show stronger resolve against illegal fishing in their waters. For their part, Chinese civilian fishing vessels have become increasingly assertive in response to South Korea’s newfound resolve.
The South Korean government and public are frustrated with what they see as insufficient efforts on the part of Chinese authorities to enforce the limits of each country’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), the borders of which are still being negotiated. The South Korean public is also angered over the overfishing of their waters; fish from the region forms a major part of their food source. The incidents have led to many South Koreans including the KCG and members of the National Assembly to urge for a stronger response.
The South Korean government understands the public’s frustration. After the October 2015 incident, Deputy Ministry for Political Affairs, Kim Hyoung-zhin, summoned the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, and “made it clear that should there be another provocation against the ROK’s authorities while they are justly enforcing law in the ROK’s waters, those authorities will have no choice but to conduct crackdowns in a tougher manner,” according to South Korean MOFA spokesperson, Cho June-hyuck.
The Chinese official response has been mixed: on one hand, they emphasize the importance of reducing the number of fishing vessels operating in the Yellow Sea for ecological, as well as safety reasons. On the other, South Korea’s more assertive response to the illicit fishing has been seen in Beijing as an inappropriate and dangerous overreaction. In reference to the October 2016 KCG vessel sinking, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Geng Shuang, has said that the KCG was in fact within the jointly controlled zone and that the Korean government should “discipline its law enforcement staff and regulate their law enforcement activities so as to avoid the abuse of law enforcement power and violent behavior or approaches that may hurt or endanger Chinese personnel.”
The Yellow Sea is an important fisheries resource for China and the two Koreas. Around 100 species of marine life are commercially fished, and many of the commercial fishing enterprises on the Chinese and Korean sides have been part of the local economies for centuries. But as is the case elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, the number and yields of vessels have increased exponentially, and the Yellow Sea has become one of the most heavily exploited areas in the world, according to the Global International Waters Assessment. Both South Korea and China have agreed to reduce commercial fishing in the region to counteract these depleted resources. China has planned to reduce both the fishing fleet and the marine catch by one-third by the year 2020.
Settling the dispute through existing maritime territorial law is difficult because of the geography of the area. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), comprise a 200-nautical mile area in which the littoral nation has exclusive rights to resources, including energy and fisheries. The littoral nation may choose to share those rights with foreign vessels.
China and South Korea both joined UNCLOS in 1996, at which point they each declared their 200-mile wide EEZs. However, in the Yellow Sea, these areas have immense overlap. China and South Korea have no disputes over their territorial waters, which UNCLOS defines as reaching out twelve nautical miles from the land baseline. UNCLOS, as written in Article 74, asks countries with overlapping EEZs to make provisional arrangements while negotiating a formal boundary. China and South Korea have designated a Provisional Waters Zone (PMZ) of shared resource management and a Transitional Zone (TZ), from which vessels are expected to withdraw after further negotiations.
To manage the disputed waters, China and South Korea negotiated from 1998-2001 to establish cooperative management of fisheries in the Yellow Sea, but did not find a final resolution to the overlapping borders. As David Rosenberg pointed out, this agreement addresses three issues: 1) it affirms the exclusive rights over fishery resources, access to marine resources, and patrol activities in each EEZ; 2) it establishes general principles for reciprocal fishing access; and 3) it creates cooperative management region for shared fisheries resources. Negotiations to settle the EEZ demarcation line are ongoing, although the current incidents only complicate the process.
Both countries’ serious attention to the issue is certainly warranted. To mitigate this growing maritime hazard, the Chinese and South Korean coast guards must improve cooperation and communication on policing the PMZ. This might include coordinated training programs for officers, coast guard hotlines, and shared signals.
But as Sukjoon Yoon of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy aptly points out, the problem is in fact a much larger one: “Illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea by Chinese vessels is not a misdeed by one party, but a bilateral issue resulting from the depletion of fishery resources and structural problems within the fisheries industry.” The overfishing of the Yellow Sea has become an issue of environmental, economic, and security concern.
Addressing this issue must not only include increased coast guard patrols, but policies to help protect fisheries. Whether fishermen have been working in these waters for generations or are new to the game, depleting fisheries reduces the opportunity for future sustainable fishing. Transitional employment programs should also be considered for fishermen. A multifaceted and cooperative approach is essential not only for security reasons, but also for the underlying environmental standards.