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Beijing’s new flashpoint: a South Korean hotspot for espionage

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Since fighting in the Korean War ended nearly seven decades ago, Baengnyeong has been a key location for Seoul to spy on North Korea. Yet now the island is on China’s radar.

China scared South Korea in December by sending a warship across a self-imposed border near the island to probe the limits of the country’s claims in the Yellow Sea. The move, described as rare by South Korean lawmakers, comes as the Chinese military strengthens its presence in disputed waters.

About 5,000 Baengnyeong residents have also been wary of an influx of Chinese fishing boats near the island, which sits in a strategic location perpendicular to the Bohai Strait – the main waterway leading to Beijing. In years past, the island’s quartzite beach – one of the few natural trails in the world – was used for outings during the Korean War.

“North Korea was definitely our main concern,” said Park Soon-ae, who collects seafood on the island for a living, as a dozen Chinese fishing boats floated in the waves nearby. . “Do you see the sea behind me?” This sea will be filled with Chinese fishing boats in a few weeks when the crab season comes. And now what, the warships? It cannot be true.

Much of the focus on Beijing’s naval expansion often revolves around Taiwan and the disputed territory with Japan and the Philippines, which together form the so-called first island chain that keeps China from moving. easy access to the Pacific Ocean. But China’s increased activity in the Yellow Sea – known as the West Sea in Seoul – shows that Beijing is also worried about a scenario in which the United States imposes a blockade much closer to its ratings.

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“China wants to make the sea a buffer zone to expand its maritime influence and ensure a path for its fleets to exit south – and the Republic of Korea opposes achieving this goal,” Shin Won said. -sik, a former general. in the South Korean military which now serves as the legislator of the parliament’s defense committee, referring to the acronym of South Korea’s official name. “Its ultimate goal is to take full control of the Western Sea, to ban United States maritime activity in the waters, and to enable swift military action in the event of an emergency.”

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Caught in the middle is Baengnyeong, which is just eight miles from North Korea and has long been the focus of intelligence agents from both Koreas. The South Korean military has installed dozens of radars on the island, some easily visible to the public. In 2013, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looked at the island through binoculars and threatened to engulf it in flames. A year later, a North Korean drone crashed into Baengnyeong in an alleged attempt to spy on South Korea’s surveillance capabilities.

South Korea’s land claims extend 20 km west of Baengnyeong, with a buffer zone of about 30 km between its line and the border with China. | REUTERS

A major problem is that three unilateral maritime borders close to the island remain disputed, opening the door to potential conflict. In 1953, after the fighting ceased, US-led forces unilaterally drew a maritime boundary known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL) which placed Baengnyeong and other islands under Korean control. from South. In 2010, an international investigation concluded that North Korea torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan near the island, killing 46 sailors – an allegation Pyongyang denies.

Authorities in Beijing set a border in 2013 staking China’s so-called area of ​​operations (AO) shipping line along 124 degrees east longitude in the Yellow Sea, about 50 kilometers to the west. from Baengnyeong. The headquarters of China’s North Sea Fleet is across the water in Qingdao Port, and the deployment of new aircraft carriers requires more space to maneuver in the Yellow Sea.

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South Korea’s land claims, meanwhile, extend 20 km west of Baengnyeong, with a buffer zone of about 30 km between its line and the border with China. According to military documents Shin acquired through his position on the Defense Committee, Chinese ships appeared every day near Beijing’s self-proclaimed OA last year to “patrol and monitor the military might of its neighboring countries.”

In December, Shin added, Beijing sent a patrol vessel to the buffer zone about 40 km from Baengnyeong, prompting the South Korean navy to respond immediately by sending a battleship guarding the northern boundary line. Shin, who is a member of the main opposition People Power Party, said Chinese aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong conducted around 20 maritime exercises in the region last year, while anti-sub sailors had taken place about 10 times.

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South Korea’s chief of staff did not comment on Shin’s remarks or the Chinese patrols. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Chinese military activities near the island.

China’s goal in the Western Pacific is to deter the United States and its allies from projecting power into areas containing core national interests, according to Zhao Tong, senior researcher at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

“This forces the PLA to prioritize modernizing its naval power and acquiring maritime control capabilities to deny access to key theaters around its coast,” Zhao said, referring to the People’s Army. release in China.

Caught in the midst of geopolitical strife is Baengnyeong, which is just eight miles from North Korea and has long been the center of intelligence agents in both Koreas.  |  REUTERS
Caught in the midst of geopolitical strife is Baengnyeong, which is just eight miles from North Korea and has long been the center of intelligence agents in both Koreas. | REUTERS

For China, which often presents President Xi Jinping’s policies in historical terms, memories of foreign armies descending on Beijing across the Bohai Strait are still relevant today. China reacted harshly when the United States sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea in 2010 for a joint naval exercise with South Korea, according to Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Lingnan University. Kong.

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“The Yellow Sea is a central interest of China’s national security,” he said.

While Chinese trawlers have been fishing near South Korean waters for years, tensions with China began to escalate in 2016. South Korea accused Chinese fishing vessels of deliberately hitting a coast guard. South Korean, causing it to sink.

China has used trawler fleets to assert territorial claims in other parts of Asia, such as the South China Sea. In March, the United States and the Philippines blasted China for sending a “maritime militia” of more than 200 ships to a disputed reef in the waters. Beijing insisted they were just sheltering from the elements.

In Baengnyeong, residents are increasingly impatient with China’s initiatives and want President Moon Jae-in to do more. The South Korean leader has sought to balance relations with China, the country’s largest trading partner, and the United States, its main security partner for more than seven decades.

South Korea plans to build airports to serve civilian and military planes at Baengnyeong and on Heuksan Island in the Yellow Sea further south. Residents said the airport would help them feel more secure, but they wanted Seoul’s government to do more to deter China.

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“The military and Coast Guard should crack down on these Chinese fishing boats,” said Im Goon-jae, a 63-year-old resident who works for the island’s hospitality industry. “They have to block them away.”

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