China asks for cooperation amid sea tensions

Kyodo News

Posted at Aug 28 2014 06:01 PM | Updated as of Aug 29 2014 02:01 AM

XIAMEN - Beijing on Thursday called on countries in the Asia Pacific to increase cooperation on maritime issues, as high-level representatives from the region gathered in southeastern China to discuss issues related to ocean management.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum's Ocean-related Ministerial Meeting in the coastal city of Xiamen comes at a time when China's relations with its neighbors have foundered over territorial disputes in its surrounding waters.

As the event opened in the morning, the head of the country's State Ocean Administration Liu Cigui greeted attendees with a message of reassurance, saying, "Harmony between people and the oceans, peaceful development and win-win cooperation are the road to becoming a strong maritime country."

But many of APEC's 21 members may find it difficult to reconcile China's call for amity with its increasingly aggressive behavior in its surrounding waters.

While Beijing is, on one hand, asking its neighbors to work with it to study and improve the management of marine resources, it is at the same time making heavy-handed claims on them.

A draft statement from the meeting obtained by Kyodo News calls on APEC's members to "combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing."

But outstanding arguments over maritime borders have made it virtually impossible to define what is and is not "legal."

And as China continues to push surrounding countries to give up their economic claims on disputed territory, questions of who should be fishing where have taken on increasingly nationalistic tones.

Disagreements between China and Vietnam over access to fisheries heated up over the last several months as the two countries squabbled over Beijing's decision in May to dispatch an oil drilling rig to waters in the South China Sea that it disputes with Hanoi.

The move sparked a months-long standoff between flotillas from both countries, leading to over a week of deadly riots in Vietnam.

Under a barrage of heavy criticism from across the region, China withdrew the rig in early July, almost a month ahead of schedule, claiming that it had finished its mission and needed to return to port before the typhoon season.

During the dispute, China arrested six Vietnamese fishermen in what Vietnam claimed were disputed waters in the Gulf of Tonkin.

China has also repeatedly clashed with the Philippines over the ownership of islands in the region and the question of who has the right to exploit their surrounding waters for economic gain.

Beijing has sought to build several permanent structures on low-lying reefs in the area, in what appears to be an attempt to solidify its claims to the territory.

Earlier this month, the Philippines imprisoned 12 Chinese fishermen for operating in territory the country disputes with China.

Despite the potential for tense negotiations, there is no expectation that the meeting will end with high drama.

The forum is fairly low-profile, and only a handful of countries have sent Cabinet-level officials to participate.

One of those countries is Japan, which dispatched its minister of oceans, Ichita Yamamoto, to the conference in what appears to be part of a concerted effort by Tokyo to secure a long-sought-after meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

It may be a tough sell for Japan. The country recently provided Vietnam with six naval vessels in an effort to help strengthen its surveillance capabilities against fishing ships, a move widely seen as aimed at China.