Thursday, December 24, 2015

China and South Korea ended another round of high-level maritime border demarcation talks in Seoul earlier this week. And just like the previous 14 rounds of talks on the same issue held between 1996 and 2008, the revived talks failed to produce a final agreement.

But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, who led the Chinese team, and South Korean counterpart Cho Tae-yul both believed that this time the talk was done “in an amicable mood.” It was also announced that yet another round of talks will take place next year in Beijing.

On the surface, ChinSeoa and South Korea do not have a maritime territorial or sovereign dispute. However, the two nations lay claim to overlapping “exclusive economic zones” (EEZ) in the narrow Yellow Sea that separates them. For a long time, South Korea has proposed a line halfway between the two nations, but China has steadfastly rejected the idea, insisting on a line proportional to the length of each country’s coastline. That would give China a much larger slice of the contested area.

The lack of a mutually agreed maritime border has become one of the biggest obstacles in the rapidly developing economic and cultural relationship between Seoul and Beijing. Earlier this month, a Chinese government vessel, registered under the Chinese Fishery Administration Authorities, intruded into an area South Korea considers part of its zone. The South Korean navy fired no fewer than 10 warning shells that barely missed the Chinese vessel, which fled back to its base on the Shangdong peninsula.

The murkiness of the border has also resulted in some tense maritime standoffs. Fleets of Chinese fishing vessels routinely operate close to the South Korean coastline, forcing the South Korean maritime police to take drastic actions that have led to violent clashes. In 2011, a South Korean maritime policeman was killed by Chinese fishermen while attempting to board a Chinese fishing vessel illegally operating in South Korean waters. In 2014, a Chinese fisherman was killed during a violent clash with the South Korean maritime police.

But the border battle has become a catalyst for a far more explosive problem for Beijing. Many in South Korea view China’s rejection of the 50-50 split proposal as a throwback to China’s longstanding chauvinistic world view, one that treats its neighbors as unworthy of being China’s equals in international affairs. With the country’s rise as a global economic powerhouse, South Korean nationalism has also been surging, which has given South Koreans a strong impetus to revisit some long dormant territorial squabbles with China.

A particular source of irritation is Beijing’s claim to a volcanic border mountain known as Changbai in China and as Paektu or Baekdu in South Korea. Technically, the mountain was split 50-50 by China and North Korea in a 1963 agreement, but the mountain is considered by the Koreans as the birthplace of the Korean people and any Chinese territorial claim over it is now seen as unacceptable. Even the name “Changbai” has been regarded as a great insult to Korean sensitivities, especially after China has applied for the mountain to become a Chinese World Heritage Site.

In 2014, two of South Korea’s leading celebrities, actress Jun Ji-hyun and actor Kim Soo-hyun, had to forfeit close to $1 million apiece in endorsement fees and apologize to the nation for their “grave mistake” in representing a Chinese company called Hengda Icy Spring, which claimed in its Chinese TV ads that its bottled water had come from the pristine “Changbai mountain” of China.

The EEZ spat also lies at the heart of the Leodo/Suyan Rock dispute. The sea rock is about 15 feet underwater, situated some 90 miles from South Korea but twice that distance from China. Because it is submerged, no one can claim sovereignty over it under international law.

But both South Korea and China say the rock falls within their EEZ, and efforts at a compromise have failed so far. If Seoul’s “50-50 split” proposal is accepted, the Leodo Rock, known in China as Suyan Rock, would clearly fall within South Korea’s zone.

In 2013, however, China unilaterally announced an “Air Defense Identification Zone” which happened to include the Leodo Rock site. Enraged, South Korea promptly expanded its own defense zone claim to cover the same space.

Apparently, beneath the seemingly cozy Beijing-Seoul economic relationship lies an inconvenient truth: Old wounds never fade easily.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.

• Miles Yu can be reached at yu123@washingtontimes.com.

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