Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea
China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
Report 200 / Asia

China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea

China is undermining its own security interests by downplaying North Korea’s deadly provocations in the Yellow Sea.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The deadly provocations by North Korea in the Yellow Sea in 2010 – the Ch’ŏnan sinking and the Yŏnp’yŏng Island shelling – drew condemnation and limited military responses by South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, but Beijing has been reluctant to go beyond counselling restraint to all parties. While declining to call Pyongyang to account, it criticised Washington for stepped-up military exercises with allies in North East Asia. Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn North Korea prevented a unified international response and undermines China’s own security interests, as it invites further North Korean military and nuclear initiatives, risks increased militarisation of North East Asia and encourages an expanded U.S. military and political role in the region. Because it is seen as having failed to take greater responsibility to safeguard stability, China has also damaged its relationships in the region and in the West. The joint statement Presidents Hu and Obama issued on 19 January has helped, but China has ground to make up if it is to recover credibility as an impartial broker in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Despite the threat to stability posed by inter-Korean clashes in the Yellow Sea along the Northern Limit Line, China has historically downplayed them as a natural consequence of the unsettled maritime boundary. Likewise, it does not consider Pyongyang’s conventional provocations and the demands for action they raise – particularly in the UN Security Council – as serious as those regarding its nuclear tests. But the approach to the North is also powerfully shaped by rising concern about a perceived U.S. strategic return to Asia and opposition to further entrenchment of American regional military and political presence.

Beijing initially downplayed the Yŏnp’yŏng shelling and criticised U.S. military deployment and exercises with allies in North East Asia. However, the subsequent spike in inter-Korean tensions altered its threat perception and led it ultimately to tone down criticism of Washington and send an envoy to Pyongyang. During President Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S. from 17 to 21 January 2011, he agreed to a joint statement that emphasised the importance of North-South dialogue and expressed concern for the first time regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) uranium enrichment program.

But China continues to strengthen its political and economic ties with the DPRK. Since 2009, the frequency of high-level visits has increased dramatically, including an unprecedented two trips by Kim Jong-il in 2010. Policy toward the DPRK continues to be fundamentally shaped by historical and security considerations: Korean War comradeship, together with the desire to preserve the North as a buffer against the U.S. and avoid a regime collapse that would trigger a flood of refugees into China. The disastrous currency reform in November 2009 and developments in the DPRK succession process in 2010 deepened Chinese concerns about stability. The leadership transition in particular is a top factor in calculations; Beijing hopes that support for stability during the ongoing process will result in closer political ties and make the next generation of leaders more amenable to economic reform. While support to North Korea is subject to internal debate, traditionalist and conservative forces dominate policymaking and are supported by nationalist public opinion.

China’s growing power and foreign policy confidence are important factors underlying its ambivalence about the Ch’ŏnan and Yŏnp’yŏng Island incidents. After the sinking and what it viewed as a biased and flawed international investigation, it drew on its increased leverage to dilute the Security Council statement. And despite North Korea’s undeniable responsibility for the Yŏnp’yŏng Island shelling, it blocked Security Council action. In the past, Beijing’s willingness to at least calibrate its responses to North Korean provocations was seen by the West as essential for moderating Pyongyang’s behaviour. Over the past year, however, Beijing has not only escalated its claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but also increasingly resisted external pressure over Iran as well as North Korea. It feels under less pressure to yield to external demands and increasingly expects quid pro quos from the West in return for cooperation on sensitive third-country issues.

However, Beijing’s increased solidarity with Pyongyang and reluctance to censure it for the deadly Yellow Sea clashes has significantly strained relations with South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Seoul was offended by tardy condolences for the Ch’ŏnan sinking and the warm welcome Kim Jong-il received immediately following South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to China. The South, the U.S. and Japan have intensified trilateral coordination on North Korea. Their rejection of China’s call for emergency consultations in the Six-Party format following the Yŏnp’yŏng Island shelling showed widening differences on threat perception and management.

China’s influence in Pyongyang makes it crucial for international efforts to address North Korean provocations, and how it deals with clashes in the Yellow Sea is an important test of its willingness, capacity and credibility in handling regional conflict risks more generally. However, Beijing is undermining both its own and regional security by downplaying Pyongyang’s deadly behaviour in the Yellow Sea. Diplomatic shielding of the North, particularly at the UN, has damaged its international image and weakened its standing as an honest broker in the Six-Party Talks, while encouraging risky conventional and nuclear initiatives by North Korea. China’s behaviour has caused South Korea and Japan to strengthen bilateral coordination and their military alliances with the U.S. and consider expansion of their own missile defence systems, intensifying the risk of a regional arms race. China’s policy of supporting Pyongyang instead of holding it to account – ostensibly for the sake of stability – is heightening the risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing/Seoul/Brussels, 27 January 2011


Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (C) sails near Japan Coast Guard vessels (R and L) and a Japanese fishing boat (front 2nd L), East China Sea, 1 July 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo
Report 280 / Asia

East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 

Dangerous aerial and naval encounters are rising as China and Japan spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea. A promising reconciliation process has floundered. To prevent an accident tipping the dispute into open hostility, both sides urgently need a credible crisis management protocol to insulate any negotiations from their broader rivalry.

Executive Summary

As China-Japan relations oscillate between hostility and détente, a credible crisis management protocol is urgently needed to manage the increasing, unplanned contacts between their military aircraft and ships. Despite intermittent negotiations, the two have been unable to agree on a maritime and air communication mechanism to help fill this gap. After suspension due to the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, China agreed to resume talks on the mechanism, comprising a hotline, meetings between defence authorities and communication protocols between forward military units in 2014. Dangerously close military aerial encounters appear to have played a fundamental role in the decision, but negotiations soon stalled over the area the mechanism would cover, an issue with implications for the dispute over the islands’ sovereignty. Resentment arising from other aspects of the relationship hardened China against compromise. With a prickly bilateral détente now in place, however, the two governments should prioritise crisis management and insulate the negotiations from their broader rivalry.

The need for crisis management is growing. The air forces are coming into contact more frequently, as each attempts to administer the overlapping Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ). Several close calls have already occurred. The navies are also increasingly in contact, as China sends ships further from its shores with greater regularity. Encounters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, East China Sea and Western Pacific will continue. Different national operating guidelines, applied in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, exacerbate the risks of miscalculation. Nationalism, increasingly institutionalised distrust on both sides and limited opportunities to build trust through military exchanges make it harder to prevent rapid escalation of hostilities should a deadly incident transpire.

Meanwhile, both sides are enhancing their military capabilities in the East China Sea. China is expanding its naval and air operations further into open waters in a bid to extend its maritime footprint to the Western Pacific, and Japan is shoring up the defences of its south-western island chain in response. Bolstered by the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, the Abe administration pushed through more proactive security legislation – the most significant shift in Japan’s defence posture since the end of the Second World War.

Against this backdrop, China and Japan need to seize the opportunity proffered by their current fragile reconciliation to establish crisis management ties. China should delink the subject from the political relationship and sovereignty questions: an unplanned clash with Japan would neither benefit its goal of achieving peripheral stability nor safeguard its rights. Japan should continue to engage and avoid inflammatory remarks that increase political risks for moderates in China. Staged implementation of the proposed mechanism, beginning with the hotline, could be a near-term confidence-building measure. Fundamental mistrust makes true reconciliation unlikely in the near future, but there is common interest in preventing or limiting an accidental crisis that would harm the political, security and economic interests of both. China and Japan should thus launch the maritime and air communication mechanism as soon as possible.


To enable agreement on the Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Instruct front-line personnel, in the mechanism’s absence, to adhere to protocols in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which both are party. 
  2. Discuss concerns about risk of collision by fishing boats and/or coast guard vessels in waters around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the High-Level Consultations on Maritime Affairs, a multi-agency forum that includes the coast guard. 
  3. Restart vice-ministerial-level defence exchanges and resume exchanges between defence universities and research organisations.
  4. China should delink Diaoyu/Senkaku sovereignty from the mechanism negotiations. 
  5. Japan should refrain from comments or actions which suggest revisionist views of history and a departure from the Murayama Statement, its 1995 official apology for wartime aggression, and immediately distance itself from provocative statements made by officials and politicians. 
  6. Japan should maintain an open dialogue with Beijing over the enhancement of its south-western defences and refrain from negatively publicising China’s lawful military activities, such as legitimate overflights and naval transits. 

To ensure effective implementation 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Keep the hotline open at all times and ensure responsible persons/units have authority to reach decision-makers and front-line personnel quickly in an emergency and to make decisions to contain and de-escalate the crisis; and utilise the hotline in case of an incident before resorting to public criticism.
  2. Give front-line operators adequate training and hold those who violate the rules accountable.
  3. Increase direct contact between front-line troops and personnel by:
    1. organising a second round of mutual naval visits; and
    2. stepping-up participation in multilateral training forums based on CUES, such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and others.
  4. Agree to address violations first bilaterally, including in defence authority meetings, so as to maximise space for resolution, rather than arguing them in the media.
  5. Consider incorporating guidelines for behaviour other than communications within the mechanism later, possibly based on those included within the 2014 U.S.-China defence memorandums or CUES.

To third-party governments and non-governmental institutions, such as research organisations, private groups and think-tanks with ties to both parties:

  1. Host forums that bring the parties together for discussions on crisis management and mitigation, including by;
    1. organising workshops to review CUES and other international naval and air agreements containing guidelines on rules of behaviour; 
    2. facilitating the sharing of best practices to avoid incidents at sea, whether in forums, symposiums or joint research projects; and
    3. encouraging participation by both coast guards and militaries, especially commanders in charge of front-line operations.
  2. Organise multilateral naval exercises on CUES implementation involving both China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF).

Beijing/Tokyo/Brussels, 30 June 2016