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.
Roehrig’s solution is support for UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the drawing of equidistant exclusive economic zones, or EEZs. Beijing and Seoul have divergent views about EEZs. Beijing’s aggressive behavior is related to popular Chinese demand for food; Seoul’s is about territorial integrity and its regional prestige. President Lee Myung-bak’s pronouncement, that Ieo-do/Suyan Reef is South Korean based on distance to the peninsula and Seoul’s use of a naval base on Jeju Island is significant. Seoul’s goal is to create a defensive perimeter for a peninsular state with no natural geographical protection. Both states are committed to violating any boundary.
Overall, the legal record of UNCLOS in territorial disputes is dismal: six cases brought since 1994. The solution, then, should be to recognize that conflict will occur, and to create trust-building measures, so that future events do not escalate into wider, possibly more regional, crises. There’s the hotline alternative. Another precedent from the Cold War is the 1972 signing of an Incidents at Sea Agreement. Domestically, neither South Korea nor China are mature enough, to negotiate such fundamental agreements about boundaries.