Claim to Ieodo linked to China’s strategy to become naval power
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Korea and China will resume working-level talks soon to draw a maritime boundary to end a dispute regarding Ieodo, a submerged reef in waters south of Jeju Island.
Prospects for progress in the meeting are bleak, given that the previous 16 rounds of talks ended in vain. Analysts indicate that China’s use of Ieodo for its maritime ambitions is behind the strained dialogue.
Maritime law experts here say China will find it challenging to prove that the reef, submerged 4.6 meters below sea level, is part of its territory.
Ieodo is located 272 kilometers from China, whereas its distance from Korea is only 179 kilometers. The short distance between South Korea and China makes their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) overlap.
Even if the two sides fail to reach an agreement on the drawing of the EEZs and take the issue to an international court, experts say Korea will most likely have the upper hand.
Questions remain unanswered though. Why has China been refusing to agree on the EEZ with Korea? Why does it prefer wasting its time by leaving Ieodo an object of prolonged dispute rather than resolve the issue and move on?
Military experts speculate that Beijing’s unwillingness to agree on a maritime boundary in the waters south of Jeju Island is linked to its strategy to become a naval power.
In a report titled “China’s Maritime Quest” released in June 2009, David Lai of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College said Beijing has three core components to achieve its maritime ambitions.
They are China’s possession of an aircraft carrier, a world-class seaborne merchant fleet to meet its growing demand for trade and resources supply and an EEZ strategy.
“China must have a navy commensurate with its growing national power. This means upgrading the People’s Liberation Army Navy to a top-ranked world-class naval power, the threshold of which, as the Chinese see it, is the possession of aircraft carrier battle groups and long-range power projection capabilities,” he said.
In recent years, China has made distinct progress in the aircraft carrier project and advances in its commercial fleets.
The Chinese aircraft carrier, the ex-Varyag undertook its second sea trials in the West Sea last December, following its first in August.
In 2010, China became the world’s largest shipbuilder, outpacing Korea, which had been the long-time leader.
Lai said China’s strategy “will cover all of its ocean interests, the long-claimed disputed islands and the entire South China Sea as well as those expanded by the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).”
“These include the 200 nautical miles of EEZ and Extended Continental Shelves.... However, this claim complicates China’s old disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei and brings China new enemies, the two Koreas and Indonesia. All of them are also members of LOST and entitled to claim their share of the pie,” he said.
Near seas strategy
Analysts say China is seeking to strengthen its naval power as the fastest-growing economy needs to secure sea lanes due to its heavy reliance on trade and overseas resources.
Dean Cheng, a research fellow of the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation, pinpointed two main drivers.
“China is likely to expand its maritime forces, which not only patrol Chinese waters, but also assert Chinese maritime claims,” Cheng said in a paper, titled “Sea Power and the Chinese State: China’s Maritime Ambitions” released in July 2011.
Beijing’s maritime ambitions have crucial implications for Seoul.
In a speech to a forum with senior journalists Monday, President Lee Myung-bak said the waters off Jeju have become increasingly significant. Currently, Lee said, nearly 400,000 ships per year pass there, but the number of ships will surge to one million in the near future as international trade will increase.
“If conflicts arise (from differing claims over maritime territory), this would give a serious blow to our economy as it heavily depends on trade,” he said. “Thus, managing near seas has become a key policy task.”
Korea remains defenseless as the Jeju naval base plan designed to counter China’s maritime ambitions has become a political football ahead of the April 11 National Assembly elections.
Liberal politicians, who gave the go-ahead to the plan when they were in power, have switched their position ahead of the elections. The main opposition Democratic United Party, in collaboration with minor progressive parties, is calling for the suspension of the project.
Election politics has left the nation divided over the plan to construct the 480,000 square-meter base by 2015 on Jeju.
한중간 이어도를 둘러싼 배타적 경제수역 (EEZ) 획정을 위한 실무회의가 조만간 열리기로 한 가운데 이번회담에서 가시적인 성과를 낼 수 있을지에 대한 관심이 집중되고 있다. 과거 한중간 16차례에 걸쳐 실무회의를 했으나 별다른 성과가 없었던 점을 고려하면 다소 가능성은 희박해 보인다.
한중간 EEZ 획정이 쉽지 않은 결정적 요인으로 중국이 해양강국으로 거듭나려는 야심이 작용한다는 분석이 설득력을 얻는다. 미국의 군사전문가들은 올해로 창군 63주년을 맞는 중국해군이 중국의 경제력에 걸맞는 수준으로 능력을 강화하기 위해 크게 세가지 분야에 역점을 두어왔다고 지적한다. 항공모함을 보유하는 것과, 선박 분야에서 경쟁력을 강화하는 것 그리고 주변국들과 EEZ 분쟁에서 양보를 하지 않는 것이 중국 해양강국 전략의 핵심요체라는 것.
고도성장을 계속하는 중국은 경제성장을 뒷받침하기 위해 해상을 통한 무역과 원유수입을 안정적으로 확보할 필요가 있으며 이것이 중국이 해양강국을 지향하는 이유라고 전문가들은 지적한다. 이외에 해리티지 재단의 한 중국전문가는 중국이 영해분쟁이 있는 주변국들과의 관계에서 영해주권을 강화하기 위한 의도도 해양력을 강화하는 한 요인으로 작용한다고 분석햇다.
작년 중국은 자국의 항공모함이 두차례에 걸친 시범 운항을 성공적으로 마친 바 있고, 2010년에는 선박 분야에서 한국을 제치고 세계 1위로 등극한 바 있다. EEZ 분야에서는 남중국해에서 베트남, 필리핀 등 아세안 국가들과 자국 영해권 주장을 강화해 나가고 있는 점을 고려해 보면 이어도를 둘러싼 EEZ 경계획정이 난항을 겪는 이유가 중국의 해양강국 전략, 즉 EEZ에서 양보를 안한다는 전략과 맞물려 있다는 해석이 가능하다는 것이다.
국내 국제법 전문가들은 이어도를 둘러싼 EEZ 경계확정이 안되어 국제분쟁절차로 가더라도 한국이 승산할 가능성이 매우 높다고 분석한다.