Fishing in troubled waters
The Chinese have it both ways when it comes to the Korean Peninsula. They have North Korea beholden to them for military protection and economic support, and they’re South Korea’s biggest trading partner.
While Kim Jong-il has to go courting Chinese leaders for just about everything, South Korea’s giant chaebol go courting Chinese politicians and business people for the right to build huge factories on Chinese soil. All the while the Chinese can be grateful the Korean Peninsula is divided between the communist North and the capitalist South.
The strategy of divide-and-rule was never more relevant than now for both Koreas when everyone’s counting on the Chinese to keep the lid on whatever mischief North Korea might have in mind while becoming ``a strong and prosperous country.”
The Chinese do love to see everyone looking to Beijing as the place for six-party talks, if they ever resume, and they love to see both Koreas, and the United States begging them to please play honest broker and bring peace and tranquility to a tense corner of the world.
The trouble with the dream of China’s role as peacekeeper is that Beijing has its own aggressive intentions. The issue came to the fore again this week with the killing of a South Korean Coast Guard commando by the skipper of a Chinese fishing boat in the Yellow or West Sea.
Thousands of times, in recent years, South Korean forces have stopped Chinese boats encroaching on territorial waters. Almost every time, the Chinese pay a stiff fine, go away ― and come back again. Twice now, in 2008 off Mokpo and again on Monday, enraged Chinese crew members have killed a South Korean.
It’s not likely Chinese authorities actually told fishing boat captains in either case to resist arrest physically, much less to kill anyone. Conversely, however, there’s no way Chinese fishing boats could operate with such impunity without the support of Chinese leaders, perhaps on a national level, certainly on a provincial level of the ports from which they set sail. The message is, take the chance, you will probably return with a rich catch and, if you don’t, all you have to do is hand over some money ― a small price for the much greater reward from selling all those fish.
All that would still be not be all that much of an international concern were it not that China’s real interest in the Yellow Sea goes considerably beyond fishing. Increasingly, in recent years, the Chinese have come to view the Yellow Sea as more or less their lake, or at least within the Chinese sphere of influence. They reacted furiously last year to the prospect of the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington leading a flotilla of U.S. and South Korean navy ships into the Yellow Sea on exercises in response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island just over a year ago.
In fact, they were a lot more upset by those exercises than they were about the sinking of the South Korean navy frigate the Cheonan eight months before the Yeonpyeong Island attack. Rather than blame the North Koreans for torpedoing the Cheonan, they called repeatedly for ``stability,” a nice word for maintenance of a status quo in which the Chinese hold all the cards.
China’s interest in waters lapping up on its shores goes far beyond the Yellow Sea. Moving south, the Chinese claim the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls as an extension of Okinawa, the southernmost island prefecture that was actually a separate kingdom until the Japanese took it over in the 19th century. More than a year ago, a Chinese trawler deliberately rammed a Japanese Coast Guard boat ― an act of defiance that had to have had the support of Chinese authorities who loudly demanded and eventually won the trawler captain’s release.
The Chinese if anything are still more interested in the South China Sea. They took over the Paracel Islands from ``South” Vietnam before the end of the Vietnam War and have refused ever since to turn them over to Vietnam, that is, the ``North” Vietnamese, who relied on Chinese arms to win the war.
The Chinese also control a number of the Spratly Islands against claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. More disturbing, they say the whole South China Sea is theirs ― a view the U.S. navy has challenged with calls on Vietnamese ports, ironic indeed considering the U.S.-led war against ``North” Vietnam.
China’s relationship with North Korea as the North’s source of arms, oil, food and much else adds a special dimension of concern. Those Chinese fishing boats are going into waters where North Korean boats would also like to venture.
China has never actually taken a position on the Northern Limit Line, challenged by the North Koreans in bloody battles in 1999 and again in 2002. The Chinese, however, are happy to exploit constant friction between the two Koreas in those troubled waters, giving the South Koreans the dual missions of defense against North Korea and encroaching Chinese fishing boats.
It’s a standoff that’s likely to worsen while China plays a hypocritical game of guarantor of an uneasy peace in a restive region.
Columnist Donald Kirk, author of “Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine,” is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org . His website is www.donaldkirk.com.