Russian Coast Guard Fires On Chinese Boat, Straining Friendship

 @ibtimes on July 17 2012 12:39 PM

Anyone who's followed East Asian and particularly Chinese current events in past weeks knows that island disputes, sovereignty claims on territorial waters, and contested fishing rights in the tropical parts of the South China Sea are leaving regional relations in tatters.

But China's fishermen are drawing fire, literally, even in the colder reaches of the Northwestern Pacific.

In the waters of the Sea of Japan, it is not the Japanese coast guard being drawn into yet another sea-borne confrontation with suspected Chinese poachers, but the Russians -- one of the few nations in the region that Beijing has worked hard in past years to maintain warm relations with.

On Tuesday, Russian media agencies, such as RIA Novosti, reported that a patrol ship fired warning shots against poachers found within the country's exclusive economic zone, who were flying a Chinese flag. Maps shown on Chinese sites indicate the incident may have taken place to the west of the southern tip of the island of Sakhalin, known for its rich mineral, oil, and wildlife resources.

RIA Novosti says the Chinese vessel was thereafter pursued by the Russian coast guard in a three-hour chase before being fired upon again, disabled, rammed, and finally boarded. Seventeen sailors in the Chinese vessel were captured unharmed, but another was reported to have fallen overboard in the ensuing chaos. Chinese and Russian media report that the missing sailor has not yet been recovered. Survival time for an unprotected swimmer in the cold Northwestern Pacific is very limited.  

Russian news reports identified the coast guard ship which fired on the Chinese vessel as the Dzerzhinsky, a heavily armed modified frigate.

Chinese state media said the country's consulate in Khabarovsk confirmed the pursuit but was unable to provide further details about the missing sailor. The alleged poachers and their ship have now been taken to the port of Nakhodka, near the major city of Vladivostok, along with their haul of 22.5 tons of squid.

The incident comes almost two months after 29 Chinese fishermen were captured by North Koreans -- it is still unclear whether government or pirates -- and had their ships impounded.

Whether the new incident will have a larger effect on Sino-Russian b-lateral affairs remains to be seen. China and North Korea have certainly not allowed the event in May to affect their close relations. China and Russia are cooperating on numerous foreign policy issues, including mutual resistance to Western intervention and political pressure on Syria. They also have common goals against what they call separatism, terrorism, and extremism in Central Asia, supported by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which both countries are cofounders.

More specifically related to the actual region of Eastern Russia, Moscow is looking to Chinese companies to invest large sums to help develop regional infrastructure. Efforts to develop China as a major market for Russian gas and oil could invigorate local economies in Russia's East and provide a vast export market alternative to Europe.

Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev's recent trip to Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (which Japan paritally claims) at the beginning of July was seen as an indication of Moscow's continued determination to develop its eastern maritime regions and to guard its wealth of natural resources.

Analysts believe that Russia and China's shared problems with Japan in regards to maritime disputes, as well as both nation's wariness of the U.S.' strategic realignment to the Pacific, have drawn the two closer together on security issues. In late April, they held major naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, drawing concern from U.S. and Japanese observers.

However, Moscow is also worried that Russia' sparsely populated far east could become flooded with Chinese laborers and businesses, diminishing its ability to control the area. Those concerns could now be reinforced by the recent tussle.

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