Beijing’s naval buildup leaves Seoul vulnerable
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.