China in recent years has claimed authority over both the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea while refusing to blame North Korea for two nasty incidents last year against South Korea. The first was the sinking of South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March 2010 with a loss of 46 lives, and the second was the shelling in November 2010 of Yeonpyeong Island, several miles from North Korea’s southwestern coast, in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed.
At the same time, South Korean commandos have been boarding Chinese vessels with rising effectiveness, imposing stiff fines that the skippers of the vessels have to pay on the spot. Already this year the South Koreans have imposed fines in 470 incidents, 100 more than last year. The killing of the commando on Monday echoed an incident more than three years ago in which a South Korean sailor was killed by the crew of a Chinese boat off of Mokpo, a South Korean port 200 miles to the south.
The greater issue is what the incident says about overall Chinese intentions in the seas on the long periphery of the Chinese mainland. China has provoked nations across Asia by disputes over remote islands.
More than a year ago, Japanese Coast Guard members arrested the crew of a Chinese trawler that deliberately rammed a Japanese vessel near the disputed Senkaku Islands, claimed by China but held by Japan, south of the main Japanese islands more than a year ago. The captain was released only after loud protests from China.
This episode is different, however, in that the Chinese are not claiming any islands in the area and are not officially saying that Chinese fishermen have the right to fish in those waters. China’s ambassador to Korea, responding to South Korea’s formal protest, promised a full investigation but asked for videotape of the incident – a request that might be hard to fulfill.