Waters are heating up again in Asia, as Chinese fisherman came under fire last Tuesday some 92 kilometers (57 miles) southwest of South Korea’s Socheong Island. The incident took place near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) maritime border with North Korea, and within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of South Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The warning shots came from four M60 machine guns of the South Korean Coast Guard, in an attempt to crack down on illegal fishing by the Chinese boats. According to reports in South Korean media, the Coast Guard fired shots at the sky and in the sea to ward off a group of 30 Chinese fishing ships attempting to rescue two 98-ton Chinese vessels seized by South Korean speedboats.
Despite repeated warnings to back off, some of the Chinese boats attempted to ram a 3,000-ton Coast Guard patrol ship, and shots were fired toward the ships’ hulls in response. After some 600-700 warning shots were fired by the Coast Guard during a 45-minute standoff, the Chinese fishing vessels finally sailed away, and the two vessels and 20 Chinese crew were transferred to Incheon.
The conflict follows months of escalating violence and marked South Korea’s first significant use of combative force since last month’s authorization by South Korea’s Ministry of Public Safety and Security to use martial force (including ramming). Seoul approved the authorization following the sinking of a 4.5-ton Coast Guard speed boat by two 100-ton Chinese fishing boats early last month.
The ramming of the South Korean Coast Guard boat came days after three Chinese fishermen died in a fire, which broke out in their steering room after the South Korean Coast Guard threw flash grenades. The Chinese fishing boat had refused to stop while illegally fishing in Korea’s EEZ without a permit. Previous incidents have led to chases and escalating violence against Chinese fishermen, who frequently resist capture by using hacksaws and knives.
And the potential for further violence grows as the number of Chinese boats fishing in South Korea’s EEZ and near the NLL expands, exceeding some 100,000 for the first time last year. As of September, 50,022 Chinese boats have been detected so far this year, with few detained. Chinese media outlets refer to the fishermen as “Those who desperately need to make a living”. Yet these same fishermen are likely responsible for significant overfishing which has driven them into the EEZ waters of other nations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has plenty enough on his plate, from a shrinking economy and laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises, so is unlikely to rein in the fishermen – especially after Seoul’s plans to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea next year. And demonstrations by tens of thousands of South Koreans in Seoul demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over a corruption row are sure to distract the South Korean government and people. All of which could suggest more violent confrontations between Chinese fishing boats and the South Korean Coast Guard in the near future.