China and its neighbors clash ever more regularly at sea. In December 2011, a Korean coast guard died after entering a Chinese fishing vessel. For the first time, relatives and colleagues of the fishermen aboard the Chinese ship talk to a foreign journalist about what happened.
This story was published by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands.
TENSIONS ON THE HIGH SEAS
by REMKO TANIS
in ZHANGJIAN YUGANG, Liaoning, China
08 FEBRUARY 2012
,,Those Koreans climbed on board and hit us with sticks. They put handcuffs on us, while ordering us to do things in a language we didn't understand. After each order, one of us was hit.''
Liu Chun Hai (57) trembles as he remembers what happened on 12 December. Like every year, three months earlier he had stepped on board the fishing vessel of his son Liu Len Chen (33), in the port of the tiny fishing town of Zhangjian Yugang in northeastern China.
They sailed towards the Yellow Sea, together with the boat of Chen Da Wei (43), who comes from the same village. They planned to fish for squid in the waters between China and South Korea.
Liu: ,,For months on end you're at sea. When the tanks are filled up, you carry what you caught over to a bigger vessel. As long as there is food and fuel, you just keep going.''
The Yellow Sea was calm on the night of 12 December. The two vessels floated close to each other.
Liu: ,,In the middle of the night we threw out our nets. The current made them float towards Korean waters, pulling our ships there as well. When we realized the Korean coast guard had spotted us, we used knives to cut the nets and went full speed ahead, back towards Chinese waters.''
,,After a while we couldn't see Chen's boat anymore. We had already entered Chinese waters, but the Koreans kept chasing us all the same. They managed to enter our ship and started hitting our crew, all ten of them. Then three of the coast guards entered the wheel house where I was with my son. They held my son. I wanted to stop them, but they pushed me over and hit the glasses from my face.''
,,Not until contact with a translator had been established they stopped beating us. It was then that it became clear they wanted us to sail towards the South Korean coast. Once we entered Korean waters, more coast guard vessels and speed boats surrounded us. Helicopters circled in the air. They made us sit outside, at the bow of the ship.''
,,Once we reached the port of Incheon in Korea, they took my son away because he was the captain. They made the rest of us stay on board. It took four days before we heard a Korean coast guard had been stabbed to death on the other ship from our village. The captain of that vessel, Chen Da Wei, had been marked as the prime suspect.''
,,On the second day, during dinner, I got to speak with my son again. They allowed him back on board for a short time. I'm sure he knew once he got off the boat he wouldn't be back again. Before they took him, he put his extra pair of shoes neatly by his bed. He left his cell phone on the mattress. That was the last time I saw him. After four days, they fined us 360 thousand yuan and told us to sail back to China. Without my son.''
Liu is sitting on the edge of the 'kang', the only warm place in his tiny, freezing family home. He cries. He is broke. He was forced to sell the brand new, thirty meters long fishing vessel to pay the fine for his son, who is still being held by the Koreans.
According to South Korean officials, two of their coast guards were stabbed while arresting the fishermen from Zhangjian Yugang. One of them died. They report that the suspect, captain Chen, is being held while awaiting trial.
Chen's parents are deeply distraught and very worried. His mother (69) lies on the kang in their home. Her face shows defeat. His father (72) is sitting in a chair, bent forward, leaning on a cane. He has trouble speaking. ,,I feel saddened and carry a heavy heart'', he stumbles. ,,I was told about the incident by people from the village, three days after it had happened. I am very sorry someone died. Of course I want nothing else but to have my son back home, but I am very, very saddened by this death.''
A fatality is unprecedented, but clashes at sea between China and its neighbors are increasing. In the Yellow Sea and in the East China Sea, Japan and South Korea have border disputes with China.
The South Korean government claims almost 450 Chinese fishing vessels entered Korean waters last year, an increase of 46 per cent over 2010.
Last week, the argument between Japan and China over a couple of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea escalated. Ten days ago a Japanese judge sentenced a Chinese fisherman to a provisory jail term of six months and a fine of one hundred thousand yuan for illegal fishing in Japanese waters.
The South China Sea is also rapidly becoming the scene of an increasing number of disputes. Strategic international shipping routes cross the sea, while the sea bed is likely to be filled with valuable energy sources.
China claims almost the entire sea for itself. Official maps in the country show the Chinese border marked practically on the beaches of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Last year Chinese marine patrol vessels fired at Vietnamese fishing boats. Last month, the Filipino government protested the presence of three Chinese ships, one of them a navy vessel, in what Manila claims are its waters. Later, the Philippines allowed the United States to increase the numbers of American soldiers stationed in the country.
Chinese state controlled media meanwhile keep repeating that 'it is time to teach the nations surrounding the South China Sea a lesson'.
Yang Zhi Wei (37) is very familiar with the maritime tensions. The fisherman from Zhangjian Yugang has been setting sail towards the Yellow Sea every year for twenty years now.
,,I had the Koreans chase me one time'', he says. ,,It was in the middle of the night. When I spotted them, I dimmed all the lights on my boat and fled. They fired flares to spot me. One of the flares landed in my nets, which caught fire.''
He says the Koreans are increasing their patrols these days. ,,Yet we keep trying to fish as far away from the Chinese coast as possible. If we stay close to land, we don't catch enough to make a living.''
It's hard for him to believe his friend Chen is being held in Korea for murdering a coast guard. But it does make him reconsider things. ,,I won't choose to flee as easily when Koreans order us to stop. Before you know it, they will start firing at us.''
For now, the port of Zhangjian Yugang is frozen over. Once the ice is gone, Yang will sail out again. But he plans to be a bit more careful as long as two of his friends and colleagues are still in a Korean cell. ,,I will start fishing for shrimp, which can still be found fairly close to land'', he says.
Liu Chan Hai, the father of one of the fisherman being held in South Korea, puts away the official Korean document which states his son has been arrested. He steps outside and braces the chilling winds to walk to the port.
There, the red Chinese flag with its yellow stars flies over the entrance gate and on each vessel. He points to a big banner the authorities put up here. It reads: 'Firm control of our borders! Protect the property and the safety of our fishermen!' It is meant to remind the fishermen each time they set sail that the government will fight for them.
But Liu has not heard from his government ever since the nightly clash with the Korean coast guard. Chen's father claims things have been quiet for him as well. ,,I trust the Koreans will follow the rules'', he says. ,,Maybe China can do something for my son. But so far no one has contacted me.''