[Viewpoint] Troubled waters for China, tooWhile the international community is seeking sanctions against North Korea, high-ranking Chinese officials have not moved from their initial position in an effort to prevent elevated tensions. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson defined the sinking of the Cheonan as “a tragic incident” and emphasized that it was an issue unrelated to Kim Jong-il’s visit to China - despite his position as chairman of the North Korean defense commission.
Chinese officials stress that the tragedy is a matter between the two Koreas, and not something China should get involved in.
But does China really have no interest in the Cheonan incident? In fact, the resolution of the Cheonan’s sinking and China’s national interest have considerable association. The future of China can differ depending on the course of the Cheonan affair.
The coast of the Chinese mainland extends 14,500 kilometers (9,000 miles). From the north, the body of water next to China is known variously as Bohai, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The Korean Peninsula bounds the Yellow Sea to the East.
However, the Exclusive Economic Zone has not been clearly defined in the Yellow Sea between Korea and China. China emphasizes the “median line” in the South China Sea, which it shares with Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, but it stands by the “natural extension of the continental shelf” in the Yellow Sea.
China champions this demarcation because under it, two-thirds of the Yellow Sea would belong to China and one-third to Korea. Beijing uses a double standard to maximize its interest when it comes to the maritime zone issue. It can always spark a dispute between Korea and China.
Now Chinese fishing vessels are operating aggressively in Korea’s Yellow Sea. When Korea was salvaging the Cheonan amid condolence and fury in late March, Chinese fishing boats were illegally working in the waters off Baengnyeong Island. Their boats continue to cross the Northern Limit Line and sweep up crabs.
Every day, an average of 300 Chinese boats fish in the Yellow Sea, and in the last three years, some 230 vessels have been caught fishing illegally. Korea’s Yellow Sea is a crucial body of water for the Chinese coastal fishing industry.
Moreover, the waters off Baengnyeong Island, where the Cheonan sank, are a sea route for international passenger ships. It is a crossroads of Chinese-Korean exchange, as it connects Korea with Tianjin, Weihai and Qingdao, and Incheon with Dalian and Dandong.
As the exchange between China and Korea grows every year, the security of the Yellow Sea is more crucial to Chinese travelers, who frequently use the passenger liners, than to Koreans, who generally fly. In 2009, six million people traveled between Korea and China. Of these, 1.37 million were Chinese visiting Korea, and most of them entered through the port of Incheon, which is close to Baengnyeong Island.
China’s export volume through the major harbors on the Yellow Sea is growing year by year. As of 2009, Qingdao is the ninth largest port in the country, handling 12.6 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo. Tianjin is ranked in 11th place with 8.7 million TEU, and Dalian is 21st with 4.55 million TEU. Three of the top 30 ports in the world are concentrated here. Including the volume going through Dandong and Weihai, the Yellow Sea can be considered the center of China’s marine transport.
In addition, the Yellow Sea is estimated to have some 7.7 billion tons of oil in reserve. In 1970, Korea proclaimed the Undersea Resources Exploitation Act, divided the 300,000 square kilometers (115,830 square miles) of the continental shelf into seven mine lots, and began drilling. And China has been criticizing Seoul for “attempting to take China’s underwater resources illegally.” Beijing even mobilized warships to stop the drilling projects.
The security of the Yellow Sea amounts to the maritime security of China. Beijing desperately needs the Yellow Sea to remain secure. Without that, China’s northeast region cannot expect to grow any more. Unless stable relations are settled in the Yellow Sea between Korea and China, the two countries cannot continue the “strategic partnership.”
If China overlooks a Korean naval vessel sunk by a terrorist attack in its own territorial waters, how can it guarantee the security of Chinese vessels and passenger liners, not to mention battleships?
Beijing must not ignore the fact that the Cheonan incident is not just a problem between the two Koreas, but a security challenge to Northeast Asia and a crisis as grave as the 9/11 terror attacks. It must realize that China will face a great crisis if it clings to its “special relationship with North Korea” and holds fast to a position that deviates from the international norm.
I hope China will act like the major country it proclaims itself to be.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is head of the Defense Affairs Committee at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
By Ko Sung-youn