South Korea–China maritime disputes: toward a solution

Author: Terence Roehrig, USNWC

It may be surprising to learn that, of the many maritime disputes in Asia, one of the most violent in the past few years has occurred between South Korea and China in the Yellow Sea.

On 16 October a 44-year-old Chinese fisherman died when hit by a rubber bullet fired by a member of the Republic of Korea Coast Guard, which had stopped a Chinese trawler fishing illegally in South Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Past incidents include the death of two Chinese fishermen in December 2010, the killing of an ROK coast guardsman and the wounding of another in December 2011, and the wounding of four ROK fishing inspectors in April 2012. All of these incidents have involved suspected illegal fishing by Chinese vessels. Despite these clashes, the two sides have so far prevented the dispute from becoming a political firestorm. Yet the problems will remain so long as three issues are left unresolved: overlapping EEZ claims, illegal fishing and the Ieodo/Suyan reef dispute.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) maintains that each state can claim a zone extending 200 nautical miles from its coast, wherein the state controls access to fishing and resources. Both South Korea and China ratified UNCLOS in 1996 and declared their 200 nautical mile EEZs, which overlap extensively across the Yellow Sea. According to Article 74 of UNCLOS, countries with overlapping EEZs are expected to make provisional arrangements while they negotiate a final agreement for delimitation. But after 16 meetings, Seoul and Beijing have yet to arrive at a settlement.  Often, states resolve overlapping claims with a median line drawn equidistant from the coastline of the two states but Beijing and Seoul have been unable to settle on this or any other solution.

The disputed EEZs make illegal fishing a problem. As China has become more developed, its consumption of maritime food products has increased dramatically. Local waters have been overfished to meet demand, so Chinese fishing fleets are venturing farther out to sea, often encroaching on the EEZs of other countries. In 2001, South Korea and China reached a five-year agreement on fishing as a temporary measure until a final EEZ deal could be reached. In lieu of a final EEZ settlement, the agreement has been renewed annually since 2006. Despite the deal, illegal fishing — almost exclusively Chinese boats encroaching on South Korean waters — has remained a problem. According to the ROK Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 4628 Chinese fishing boats have been seized for illegal fishing since the 2001 agreement, with a record number expected for 2012.

South Korean officials have cracked down on illegal fishing and doubled the fines for those who are caught. China’s response to South Korea’s actions and to the violence has been relatively muted. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry noted ‘The Chinese side regrets that the relevant incident caused the death of an ROK coastguard, which is an unfortunate event.  Currently the relevant authorities in China and South Korea are in close communication on investigating this situation. China is ready to work closely with South Korea to properly settle the issue.’ South Korea and China have also held meetings for a fishing cooperation committee and established a hotline to help manage these incidents.

The last issue is the disputed reef in the East China Sea, called Ieodo by Koreans and Suyan Reef by the Chinese. Both sides agree the reef is not a ‘territory’ dispute but rather a dispute over jurisdiction, as the reef remains submerged even at low tide. In 2003, South Korea built the Ieodo Ocean Research Station on the reef, which it maintains is part of its continental shelf. Chinese leaders have filed regular protests insisting the area remains disputed based on overlapping EEZs. They argue South Korea should refrain from building structures on the reef until the disagreement is settled. In March 2012, tension escalated when a Chinese official said that Suyan was in China’s ‘jurisdictional waters’, and Beijing would increase patrols and enforcement of Chinese law in the area. In a news conference ROK President Lee Myung-bak declared that once Seoul and Beijing settled their overlapping EEZs, presumably using the median line principle, Ieodo would ‘fall naturally into South Korean-controlled areas’, since the reef is closer to South Korea.

An important issue tied to this dispute is South Korea’s construction of the Jeju-do Naval Base. Jeju is an island off South Korea’s southwest coast that provides ready access to important shipping lanes in the Yellow and East China Seas. The port would also provide a base of operations for the ROK Navy to protect South Korean maritime interests — including the maintenance of jurisdiction over the reef — and can accommodate 20 warships and submarines. The project has been controversial; opponents fear the environmental damage from construction and are convinced the facility will eventually become a US naval base, despite repeated denials by the ROK and US governments.

Although South Korea and China have handled these issues calmly, they remain serious irritants in a relationship with much at stake. Sino–Korean economic ties are large and growing. Moreover, both have many other common interests, most importantly the problem of North Korea. In contrast to other maritime disputes in Asia, however, this issue seems less intractable: the ROK and China must settle on an EEZ based on the median-line principle and work together to address illegal fishing. Indeed, both sides have already taken important steps to better control the fishing problem. South Korea and China have an opportunity here and far too much to lose if they allow these disputes to fester.

Professor Terence Roehrig is Professor of National Security Affairs and Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the US Naval War College. He is also Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Navy, the US Department of Defense or the US government.