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China Bends to Seoul’s Demands on Tracking Fishing Boats

A new maritime deal requiring Chinese fishing vessels to keep location tracking devices turned on when operating in South Korean waters signals a concession by Beijing — a small gesture to save ties from declining further with Seoul, experts say.

China agreed with South Korea that it will be mandatory for its fishing fleets to install and keep on the internationally accepted automatic identification system (AIS) while sailing in South Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) starting in 2024.

The requirement to install and turn on the location tracking devices will help South Korea deal with China’s illegal fishing, Seoul’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said in a statement announcing the deal on Nov. 3.

The agreement goes into force on May 1, 2024. It also reduces the number of fishing boats each country will allow in its EEZ to 1,200 — down from 1,250 in 2022.

The agreement reached on Nov. 2 came a week after South Korea seized a Chinese vessel for illegal fishing in its waters near Hongdo, an island in the Yellow Sea. The vessel underreported its catch in violation of South Korea’s EEZ restrictions, said Cho Seung Hwan, spokesperson for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

“The agreement is significant as it provides a diplomatic solution to the dispute, and China, through the inclusion of the AIS provision, has offered a concession to South Korea,” said Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security and a Korea expert at the U.S. Naval War College.

“Chinese leaders have seen the increasingly negative views of China in South Korea, along with the rising tensions in ROK-China relations, and may have wanted to make a gesture that in a small way addresses the decline, or at least doesn’t worsen the relationship,” Roehrig told VOA via email.

Worsening relationship

The relationship between South Korea and China soured this year as Seoul forged a closer alignment with Washington and mended diplomatic ties with Tokyo, leading to a historical trilateral summit at Camp David in August.

The tension reached a peak in June when Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming publicly warned that betting against China will end with Seoul regretting the move.

Ken Gause, director of the CNA’s Special Projects for Strategy and Policy Analysis program, told VOA Monday in a telephone interview that Beijing is looking for “an avenue” to draw Seoul closer to its side as South Korea’s trilateral ties with the U.S. and Japan become stronger.

“Japan is a very difficult country to engage with from China’s point of view,” Gause said. “South Korea holds out more potential for China to be able to exert its influence.”

China and Japan have a fraught, centuries-old relationship marked by periods of conflict and persistently negative perceptions.

Since World War II, Beijing and Tokyo have disagreed on Japan’s atrocities during the war and challenged each other over who controls a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — called the Senkaku by the Japanese and the Diaoyu by the Chinese. With China’s increasing activity in the air and water surrounding Taiwan, a self-governing nation it considers its own, Japan has been increasingly fearful of conflict in that arena.

Gause said that although China agreed to apply a stricter requirement for its fishing boats, it is questionable whether China will enforce it. He added that South Korea’s major concern is Chinese vessels conducting illicit transfers to North Korea without turning on the AIS.

Illegal fishing

The AIS agreement builds on a deal the two countries reached in June to crack down on Chinese fishing vessels operating illegally in North Korean waters. In 2017, the U.N. Security Council banned U.N. member states from fishing in North Korean waters in a bid to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining foreign currency by selling fishing rights.

Under the June deal, South Korea is to inform Beijing of suspected illegal Chinese fishing vessels in the North Korean portion of the East China Sea, and Beijing is to investigate and report its investigationresults and measures to Seoul.

The dispute over illegal fishing by Chinese ships is rooted in overlapping EEZ claims in the Yellow Sea, according to Roehrig.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, a country has jurisdiction over living and nonliving resources within its EEZ, which extends for 370 kilometers beyond its shoreline.

However, the EEZs declared by South Korea and China overlap in some parts of the Yellow Sea, a narrow body of water whose width ranges from 740 to 1,074 kilometers.

Chinese vessels are known to fish illegally worldwide and have drawn condemnation for depriving maritime nations of their livelihoods, undermining international norms and environmental impacts that include overfishing.

In South Korean waters, China’s fleet activities have created dangerous clashes with local fishing crews. In 2011, while trying to crack down on a Chinese boat illegally operating near South Korean waters, a member of South Korea’s coast guard was fatally stabbed by a Chinese fisherman, and dangerous encounters have continued since then.

Courtney Farthing, director of international policy at Global Fishing Watch, told VOA via email Tuesday that the AIS agreement between Seoul and Beijing is “highly important and necessary.”

She said her organization’s analysis shows about 30% of vessels originating from China and operating in South Korean waters “cannot be identified as authorized due to their lack of AIS broadcasting.”

International regulations requiring the use of AIS by Chinese vessels operating outside their own waters have existed at least since 2018, but the efforts to strengthen AIS usage and enforcement in South Korean waters is a welcome development, Farthing said.

The International Maritime Organization requires all ships with 300 or more gross tonnage traveling in international waters to use AIS.

However, “There is still a considerable journey ahead, as the majority of nations do not yet mandate public tracking of fishing vessels or provide public information regarding authorizations for their fleet’s activities at sea,” she said.

Tabitha Grace Mallory, CEO of the China Ocean Institute and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, told VOA that a vessel monitoring system (VMS) is necessary in addition to AIS.

“VMS is even more specific to fisheries than AIS, which is meant for safety at sea. But most countries don’t like to share VMS data,” Mallory said.

VMS equipment monitors a vessel’s location through a satellite and is used to enforce maritime regulations, according to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. 

Source: VOA