Chinese efforts to shore up holdings in the East China Sea became are becoming more apparent with China’s State Oceanic Administration claiming Socotra Rock (Korean: Ieodo/이어도, Chinese: Suyan Rock/苏岩礁) as part of Chinese jurisdictional waters, and open to Chinese maritime patrols.
This statment coincides with reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) aircraft carrier ex-Varyag (Shi Lang, 施琅) would be ready to conduct patrols of the East and South China Seas by year’s end.
Both the Socotra and ex-Varyag issues, along with continual Chinese fishing in non-Chinese Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), are forcing the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) government towards a stronger tact with China. Seoul has continually rebutted China’s statements on Socotra Rock, but has recently vowed firm action in response to any future Chinese attempts to exert jurisdiction on the territory. Talks between the two countries have broken down numerous times, and China’s reavowed stance and growing military presence won’t help the dialogue between the two nations.
While the Chinese presence in the region continues to grow, Seoul is taking steps to increase its presence in the region as well. President Lee Myung-bak’s incumbent Saenuri party( 한나라당), is pressing ahead with the construction of a naval base on Jeju island, the Korean island closest to Socotra, though the project has become a massively political issue within the country.
The overt cause of protests and debate have centered around the construction’s potential for destroying the scenic Gureombi Rocks (구럼비 바위, either extremely valued cultural landmarks, or a landmass resembling the majority of Jeju’s coastline, depending on whom you ask), but this author believes the tension to be rooted in deeper turmoil, namely, Jeju’s independent streak and wish to keep Seoul at arm’s reach. The militarization of Jeju certainly dredges up horrible memories for islanders, and in an election year, politicians in Seoul looking to make a name for themselves have latched onto it as a populist battle.
It won’t be easy for Seoul to win the trust of Jeju islanders and the Saenuri Party may take a beating in the process, but Gureombi spared or destroyed, Seoul will likely get its naval base as Chinese power increases in the region.
Back on the mainland, the majority of Koreans still consider the Japanese and Korean feud over Dokdo/Takeshima to be of greater national importance, but the recent death of a South Korean coast guardsman, killed while boarding a Chinese fishing vessel, seemed a straw too far, with the media and public outraged by Chinese fishermen’s aggressive tactics.
These events, along with media allusions to the PLAN ex-Varyag patrolling off of Socotra, may be turning the tide of national threat perception. It will still take a lot of heavy-handed movements by China to make the South Korean public’s hatred of Japan to recede, but the ROK government continues to press ahead to counter Chinese muscle-flexing.
Seoul recently vowed to construct naval bases on Baeknyeong (백령도) and Heuksan islands (흑산도) in the East China Sea (Northern Yellow Sea, West Sea in South Korean terminology) to help with ROK Coast Guard response times in dealing with illegal Chinese fishing. While the bases are to focus on repelling EEZ fishing violations, their construction as ports for refueling, resupplying, and housing naval personnel will potentially serve well should tensions continue to rise, and if South Korea needs to establish a stronger military presence in the region should more than just unruly fishermen enter the region.
All this growing tension, and the U.S. hasn’t even thrown themselves fully into the mix yet.
Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch