Tensions between China and almost all of its maritime neighbors are at a historic high as a result of sovereignty and maritime rights disputes.
In the latest dustup, China is now facing off against its only main ally and presumptive "strategic partner" in the region: Russia.
Maritime and naval authorities in Russia dispatched a large patrol ship July 16 that chased a group of intruding Chinese fishermen who were inside Russia's Exclusive Economic Zone near Vladivostok. The Russians captured by force 17 Chinese fishermen, and one is missing and presumed dead after an at-sea shootout, according to Andrey Orlov, spokesman for the Russian Border Guard Service in the Far East.
The Chinese fishermen began their journey in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, some 1,000 miles away.
According to both Russian and Chinese press reports, the Russian patrol ship, the 3,600-ton Dzerzhinsky, named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the notorious Bolshevik and founder of the KGB, spotted a fishing ship flying a Chinese flag in Russia's EEZ. The ship then sent a series of inquiries and asked the Chinese for answers. Failing to get any response, the Dzerzhinsky chased the ship, an encounter that lasted three hours.
The Chinese ship refused to stop and instead began making erratic zigzag maneuvers that resulted in a collision with the Dzerzhinsky. The impact of the crash sent one Chinese fisherman into the air and into the sea. A search by the Dzerzhinsky failed to find him.
After the crash, the Chinese fishing vessel continued to evade the Dzerzhinsky and the Russians fired at the vessel's stern with its AK630 deck guns, hitting it numerous times. The gunshots immobilized the Chinese vessel and the Russians boarded it and arrested all 17 remaining Chinese fishermen.
Illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen is a long-standing problem for Russia. The day before the July 16 shootout, another Chinese fishing vessel was captured by the Russians in the same area. Last year, 75 Chinese fishermen were arrested by Russian authorities on the Russian side of the Amur and the Usuri rivers. In 2010, some 17 Chinese fishing vessels were captured and detained for illegal fishing. In 2009, a Chinese vessel carrying smuggled goods was sunk near Vladivostok by Russian border guards, killing seven Chinese sailors.
China's regional confrontations were triggered by a large-scale and seemingly unchecked Chinese fishing fleet that has run up against all its maritime neighbors including Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
China's official response was immediate but measured. The top Russian envoy in Beijing was called in for a procedural protest. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing, which is normally quick to condemn all sorts of international conspiracies against China, issued a cautious statement promising to contact Russian authorities to find out more about the incident.
The normally jingoistic and anti-Western official newspaper Global Times, however, published an editorial July 18 that criticized Moscow's "enforcement of the law through violence."
On the other hand, there were reports in official Chinese news media that said the fishermen from Shandong province may be punished upon their release and repatriation for having caused the high-profile incident at an inopportune time.
The reaction shows that apparently China can ill afford to upset its key strategic partner in Moscow too much.
Former U.S. Ambassador in Taiwan on Chinese democracy
Taiwan and the United States share common values of democracy, freedom and human rights, and the United States should elevate its stance on these values, propagate them in China and try to influence the communist state, said Jon Huntsman, former Republican governor of Utah and President Obama's immediate past ambassador to China, during a recent high-profile visit to Taiwan. Mr. Huntsman was one of this year's failed Republican candidates for the presidential nomination.
The former ambassador's comments contrast sharply with his conciliatory stance on China during his campaign.
Among all nine Republican contenders for the presidential nominations -- including presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry -- Mr. Huntsman's China policy initiative was the softest, centering on engagement, not confrontation, with Beijing.
Toward that end, Mr. Huntsman's main campaign tactic was to constantly showcase his ability to speak Mandarin Chinese as if to convince American voters he would more efficiently communicate with Chinese officials as president.
But that tactic failed largely due to deeply held suspicions among most Americans about the utility of simply talking and engaging in dialogue with the Chinese communist regime.
In fact, the Beijing government never reciprocated Mr. Huntsman's pro-engagement stance. According to official statements, the Chinese government distrusted Mr. Huntsman and seized on one statement he casually made last November during a debate in Iowa about the power of China's Internet. The comment caused the Beijing government to castigate him as a person who is ultimately persona non grata in China.
Unable to engage China, despite his ability to speak Chinese, Mr. Huntsman apparently is now warming up his relations with democratic Taiwan.
• Miles Yu's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com
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