The Chinese government is seeking to expand its Exclusive Economic Zone in the Yellow Sea, deep into South Korean waters–the latest move in what appears to be a comprehensive strategy to usurp sovereignty over Asian waters that include both the South and East China Seas.
The governments of China and South Korea have begun talks toward the resolution of a territorial dispute in the Yellow Sea. International maritime law allows for the establishment of an Exclusive Economic Zone within 200 nautical miles of a nation’s coast. The waters involved in this dispute are within the 200 nautical mile limit for both China and South Korea, however, necessitating a diplomatic resolution.
In the first diplomatic talks on the matter in seven years, South Korea proposed making the limit of their respective zones the halfway point between the two. China, however, is rejecting this, demanding exclusive control over more of the territory, including waters in which South Korea has constructed a marine research facility.
The Telegraph notes that Chinese diplomats are trying to argue that, because China is a more populous country with more land area, it deserves control over a larger percentage of the sea. Despite President Park Geun-hye’s efforts to warm relations between China and South Korea – culminating in Park making an appearance at China’s WWII victory parade this year, much to North Korea’s chagrin – Korean diplomats have made clear China’s proposal is unacceptable.
A similar meeting in 2008 resulted in no conclusive agreement, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun notes. The lack of resolution has led many to fear that clashes between South Korean and Chinese vessels are possible, though in the past year, only one major incident occurred between the two nations in South Korean waters. South Korean coast guard officials fired at a Chinese patrol boat that had entered South Korean territory earlier this month, but later explained the aggressive reaction was a misunderstanding: coast guard officials thought the boat was North Korean.
Outside of official interactions, South Korea has been forced to handle a steadily increasing number of private Chinese fishing boats violating its sovereignty. In 2014, South Korean coast guard officials shot and killed a Chinese fishing boat captain in a dispute in the Yellow Sea after he reacted “violently” to a request to inspect his ship.
China’s neighbors may view its Yellow Sea dispute as particularly alarming, following a year in which China has increasingly militarized the South China Sea, attempting to keep a number of southeast Asian countries from operating in international waters. While the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan all claim parts of the South China Sea, China has declared almost complete control over the waters. The Philippines has filed a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which the court ruled it has jurisdiction to oversee. Experts have suggested a ruling against China in the case could significantly damage the nation’s international image.
Following the ruling on jurisdiction from The Hague, China appears to have begun accelerating its construction efforts in the region. In the reefs surrounding the Spratly Islands, which the Philippines also claims, China appears to have begun construction on three aircraft landing strips, quadrupling its presence there.
South Korea has condemned China’s attempt to seize the South China Sea. “It is our stance that freedom of navigation and freedom of flight should be ensured in this area, and that any conflicts be resolved according to relevant agreements and established international norms,” South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-Koo said in November at a press briefing alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
The South China Sea dispute has significantly damaged Chinese relations with the United States. China has accused America of a number of “serious military provocations” for having ships navigate through the South China Sea and flying a number of aircraft in the region. Most recently, China condemned the passage of a B-52 bomber in the area, which the Pentagon claimed was the product of “bad weather.”
Chinese media have also threatened the government of Australia. “Everyone has always been careful, but it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian,” a column in last week’s state-run Global Times reads.