By Joel Brinkley

Standing on a high bluff above the Yellow Sea, it was impossible to overlook the spectacle taking place below. Two dozen Chinese fishing boats, each one flying the big red national flag, were steaming into South Korean waters, in search of the sea's bountiful blue crabs, anchovies and croakers.

They hadn't made it far when two South Korean coast guard battle cruisers, big guns on deck, came into view from the south, powering at full speed toward the fishing boats. Suddenly the lead ship's captain leaned on his horn, a clarion so loud it could be heard for miles around.

The fishermen certainly heard it. Every one of them immediately turned their vessels north, speeding out of South Korean waters. The cruisers kept coming until finally they coasted to a stop in the fishing vessels' wakes.

Another Korean confrontation with China was over, this time with no violence. That hasn't always been the case. When coast guard officers boarded a Chinese fishing boat a few months ago, the Chinese, wielding knives, scythes and hooks, killed one and wounded several others. South Korea says it has repelled more than 500 Chinese boats since the beginning of 2011. Violent incidents are not unusual.

For China, this is par for the course. The nation is making the ridiculous assertion that it controls virtually all of the seas from Korea all the way down to Malaysia and Brunei. China's own map showing its claimed territory looks like a balloon blown up in a confined space. In the region, it's known as the "cow's tongue." The farthest point China claims for itself is more than 1,200 miles away.

No one, not any nation anywhere, recognizes China's claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, 1.2 million square miles and other territory north of that, like the seas around South Korea. Wary of China, South Korea is building a large naval base on Jeju island, just off its southern coast.

Even North Korea is in conflict with China, its patron state and only friend. On May 8, North Korea captured 28 Chinese fishermen in the North's territorial waters. After they were released, the fishermen claimed they had been beaten and starved.

Watching all of this, the U.S. Senate is trying to revive the Law of the Sea treaty, signed 30 years ago but never ratified because conservative Republicans object. But last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other senior officials pushed the Foreign Relations Committee to vote for ratification.

The U.S. insists it has full rights to send commercial and military vessels into the South China Sea, as it always has. But without the treaty it has no legal basis to argue that point with China.

Pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, in 1947 the Republic of China issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because two years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But, as it turned out, the new government embraced the map, and in recent years China has grown more assertive about that. Right now China is in a hostile standoff with The Philippines, which claims a group of shoals 124 miles off its coast -- 472 miles from China. In April, The Philippines challenged several Chinese fishing vessels at work there, and China stormed to their defense as a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that those distant shoals were "an inherent part of Chinese territory."

All of that is utter nonsense. No other country on earth is making such absurd claims. The international Law of the Sea states: "Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles" from its coast. At the same time, each state also has an "exclusive economic zone" that stretches 200 miles from its coast.

Those Philippine shoals clearly fall within that. China has no rights there.

The Philippines is not the only unhappy nation. Also upset are Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, which feels so threatened that it's actually inviting U.S. warships to dock there.

Through all of this, China is blustering and threatening. It called North Korea "insolent." The Philippines, it said, should be punished. And in a penultimate warning, the Chinese foreign ministry cautioned that its neighbors "are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States."


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China is Roiling the Waters | Global Viewpoint