Ever since fighting ended in the Korean War nearly seven decades ago, Baengnyeong has been a key location for US allies in Seoul to spy on North Korea. Now the island is on China’s radar.
China spooked South Korea in December last year by sending a warship past a self-imposed boundary near the island to probe the limits of the nation’s claims in the Yellow Sea. The move, described as rare by South Korean lawmakers, came as China’s military bolstered its presence in the disputed waters.
About 5,000 residents on Baengnyeong have also become wary of an influx of Chinese fishing boats near the island, which sits in a strategic location perpendicular to the Bohai Strait — the main waterway providing access to Beijing. In years past the island’s quartzite beach — one of a handful of natural runways in the world — was used for sorties in the Korean War.
“North Korea was definitely our major concern,” said Park Soon-ae, who collects seafood on the island for a living, as about a dozen Chinese fishing boats bobbed in waves nearby. “You see the sea behind me? That sea will be filled with Chinese fishing vessels in a few weeks when the crab season comes, and now what, warships? This can’t be true.”
Much of the focus on Beijing’s naval expansion often revolves around Taiwan and disputed territory with US allies Japan and the Philippines, which together make up the first island chain, blocking China from easy access to the Pacific Ocean, but China’s increased activity in the Yellow Sea — known as the West Sea in Seoul — shows that Beijing is also worried about a scenario in which the US imposes a blockade much closer to its shores.
“China wants to make the sea a buffer zone to expand its maritime influence and secure a path for its fleets to exit to the south — and the ROK [South Korea] stands in its way of realizing that goal,” said Shin Won-sik, a former general in the South Korean military who now serves as a lawmaker on parliament’s defense committee. “Its ultimate goal is to gain full control in the West Sea, to prohibit the US’ maritime activity in the waters and enable swift military action in times of emergency.”
Caught in the middle is Baengnyeong, which is 13km from North Korea and has long been a focus of intelligence agents from the two Koreas.
The South Korean military has installed dozens of radars on the island, some easily seen by the public. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2013 stared at the island through binoculars and threatened to engulf it in flames. A year later, a North Korean drone crashed on Baengnyeong in an alleged attempt to spy on South Korea’s surveillance capabilities.
One key problem is that three unilateral maritime boundaries near the island remain disputed, opening the door for potential conflict.
After fighting stopped in 1953, US-led forces unilaterally drew a maritime border known as the northern limit line that put Baengnyeong and other islands under South Korea’s control. An international investigation in 2010 concluded North Korea torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan near the island, killing 46 sailors — an allegation Pyongyang denies.
Beijing authorities set a boundary in 2013 staking out China’s so-called maritime area of operations line along 124 degrees east longitude in the Yellow Sea, about 50km west of Baengnyeong.
The headquarters of China’s North Sea Fleet is across the waters in the port of Qingdao and the deployment of new aircraft carriers requires more space to maneuver in the Yellow Sea.
South Korea’s territorial claims extend 20km west of Baengnyeong, with a buffer zone of about 30km between its line and China’s boundary.
Military documents acquired by Shin through his position on the defense committee showed that Chinese ships appeared near Beijing’s self-claimed area of operations every day last year to “patrol and monitor its neighboring countries’ military power.”
Beijing in December last year sent a patrol ship into the buffer zone about 40km away from Baengnyeong, prompting the South Korean Navy to respond immediately by sending a battleship that was guarding the northern limit line, Shin said.
The Chinese aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong last year conducted about 20 maritime exercises in the area, while anti-submarine drills took place about 10 times, added Shin, who is a member of the main opposition People Power Party.
The South Korean Joint Chief of Staff had no comment on Shin’s remarks or the Chinese patrols. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment about Chinese military activities near the island.
China’s goal in the west Pacific is to deter the US and its allies from projecting power in areas containing core national interests, said Zhao Tong (趙通), a senior fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
“This requires the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to prioritize the modernization of its naval power and acquire sea-control capabilities to deny access to key theaters around its coast,” Zhao said.
For Beijing, which often casts the policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in historical terms, memories of foreign armies descending on the nation through the Bohai Strait are still relevant.
China reacted harshly in 2010 when the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea for a joint naval drill with South Korea, said Zhang Baohui (張泊匯), director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“The Yellow Sea constitutes a core national security interest of China,” Zhang said.
While Chinese trawlers have fished near South Korea’s waters for years, tensions with China began to ratchet up in 2016. South Korea accused Chinese fishing boats of deliberately ramming a South Korean Coast Guard cutter, causing it to sink.
China has used fleets of trawlers to assert its territorial claims in other places, such as the South China Sea.
The US and Philippines in March criticized China for sending a “maritime militia” of more than 200 vessels to a disputed reef in the waters. Beijing said that they were merely sheltering from bad weather.
On Baengnyeong, residents are growing impatient with China’s moves and want South Korean President Moon Jae-in to do more.
Moon has sought to balance ties with China, the nation’s biggest trading partner, and the US, its main security partner for more than seven decades.
South Korea is planning to build airports to serve civilian and military aircraft on Baengnyeong, and the Yellow Sea island of Heuksan further to the south.
Residents said the airport would help them feel safer, but they want the government in Seoul to do more to deter China.
“The military and coast guard should crack down on these Chinese fishing boats,” said Im Goon-jae, a 63-year-old resident who works in the hospitality industry. “They need to block them far out.”
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