Clashes Over Maritime Ambitions

China, which is now reportedly preparing to put into service its first aircraft carrier ‘Varyag’ sometime later this year, has renewed its claim to jurisdiction over Ieodo, a submerged rock south of Jeju Island. This has sparked concerns in  South Korea over whether the country is sufficiently prepared to handle any contingencies threatening its maritime security.

China’s claim sparks maritime security concerns

‘Seoul should enhance naval capabilities to keep China and Japan in check’

China’s renewed claim to jurisdiction over Ieodo, a submerged rock south of Jeju Island, has sparked concerns here over whether South Korea is sufficiently prepared to handle any contingencies threatening its maritime security.

In a diplomatic step, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry called in an official from the Chinese Embassy here on Monday, saying that South Korea would sternly deal with any moves to exercise jurisdiction over the rock.

The Chinese official reportedly repeated Beijing’s stance that Ieodo is within its exclusive economic zone ? 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, from its coastline.

The rock in question is in the overlapping EEZ of the two countries. But South Korea says it is within its EEZ given that it is located 149 kilometers southwest of Korea’s southernmost island of Marado, while China’s nearest island of Yushandao is 287 kilometers away.

The jurisdictional claim served as a wake-up call to South Korea, which has focused primarily on deterring North Korea while paying less attention to possible maritime threats from neighboring states such as China and Japan.

Since 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao has stressed the importance of securing maritime sovereignty, sought to increase public awareness of it and significantly increased its investment into bolstering naval capabilities.

China is now reportedly preparing to put into service its first aircraft carrier “Varyag,” which was bought from Ukraine in 1998, sometime this year, in what observers call a move to bolster its maritime ambitions.

Zhang Xinsen, Chinese ambassador to South Korea, is about to get in a car to leave the Korean Foreign Ministry after having a meeting with Kim Jae-shin, South Korea’s deputy minister for political affairs, over the issue of Ieodo, in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap News)

On Monday, citing a senior navy official, People’s Daily, the newspaper of China’s Communist Party, carried an article making it official that the carrier will be commissioned this year. It is also reported that China plans to build two nuclear-powered carriers by 2015.

Stressing that Korea should keep tabs on China’s movements at sea, experts say China’s principal motivation to expand its maritime interests is to secure resources to feed its 1.3 billion people and power its economy.

“Its degree of dependence on foreign trade is around 60 percent and it imports 43 percent of its oil consumption. Most of the imports came through maritime routes,” said Kang Hyo-baik, vice dean of Graduate School International Legal Affairs at Kyunghee University.

“As it lacks energy to continue its economic growth, it cannot help but take interest in developing maritime energy sources. Thus, it appears that its strategy to expand its maritime sphere of influence is essential.”

Amid Beijing’s moves to bolster its sea power, South Korea is now engaged in what appears to be an ideological fight over the ongoing construction of a strategic naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju.

South Korea’s government and Navy maintain that the base is crucial for protecting sea lanes of communication and quickly responding to any contingencies that could occur within its territorial waters.

But left-wing politicians and activists have stepped up their offensive against it, arguing that the base will hurt the island’s ecosystem and tourism, tarnish its image of peace and result in its militarization.

They also argue that the base will be used for the U.S. military and could spark regional tension between China and the U.S.

“In Northeast Asia, very critical military situations are unfolding. (The naval base issue) should not descend into an ideological dispute. This is a security issue and an issue concerning our survival,” said professor Kang.

Security experts here said that South Korea should get a full grasp of what China’s maritime expansion means, and that it should bolster naval capabilities.

“As China is to commission its first aircraft carrier in the near future, we now face the reality of how to deal with such developments. Our concerns (about China’s expanding naval might) are becoming a reality,” said Lim Han-kyu, adjunct professor at Hyupsung University who served as vice chief of the Naval Education and Training Command from 2006-2007.

South Korea has only three Aegis-equipped 7,600-ton destroyers and one 14,000-ton amphibious landing ship Dokdo, which are capable of conducting broader-range, overseas operations.

Lim estimates that Seoul needs to have at least six Aegis-equipped destroyers for long-distance operations to counter possible threats from outside forces, given that several of the vessels should sit idle rotationally for maintenance.

“With China seeking to have aircraft carriers, we also need to possess at least a small-scale carrier. To enhance our naval capabilities, we also need effective deterrence assets such as nuclear-powered submarines capable of keeping China and Japan in check,” Lim said.

“With Confucianism rooted in our society, people have valued human life, regarding sea as threatening life. So people shun the sea and sailors. During the past military governments, the Army generals led the country with its policy focus on the Army. This is part of the reason (that our naval capacity is not sufficient).”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldm.com)

Source: The Korea Herald

Photo: Zhang Xinsen, Chinese ambassador to South Korea, is about to get in a car to leave the Korean Foreign Ministry after having a meeting with Kim Jae-shin, South Korea’s deputy minister for political affairs, over the issue of Ieodo, in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap News)

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