China’s Next Flashpoint?
Image Credit: Office of the South Korean President

China’s Next Flashpoint?


It was named Socotra Rock when discovered by the British in 1900. It’s called Ieodo in South Korea, and Suyan Rock in China. Regardless of what it’s called, there usually isn’t much reason to discuss a reef that lays 149 kilometers from the nearest piece of South Korean territory and 247 kilometers from the closest part of China. But the area has the potential to become a flashpoint between two of Asia’s biggest economic and military powers.

Seoul summoned Chinese diplomats on March 12 to explain a remark made a few days earlier by a top Chinese official for maritime affairs. The official claimed that Socotra Rock falls in Chinese waters, and argued thatChinese vessels regularly patrol the area, making it rightly Chinese.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak responded by claiming Socotra. Leetold reporters the same day that Socotra “fallsnaturally into South Korean-controlled areas.” He also noted the fact that the rocks are closer to South Korea than to China. 

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The basis for debate over Socotra is South Korea and China’s disagreement over maritime delineations in the area. The two countries insist on different Exclusive Economic Zones, and the disputed reef is located at the overlap of the two lines.

U.N. maritime law states that an EEZ extends 370 kilometers from a country's territory, although the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a submerged reef can’t be claimed as territory by any country. Still, this hasn’t stopped China and South Korea from arguing over which country is entitled to administer the area.

One could ask why two large nations with plenty to keep themselves busy with are fighting over a set of rocks far out at sea. But in addition to likely being located in an area of oil and mineral deposits, the Socotra issue is connected to some serious political and military maneuvering taking place in the area.

South Korea is expanding its naval capabilities in the region. For example, on Jeju Island, not far from Socotra, the South Korean government is pushing ahead with the construction of a major naval base. Defense against China is believed to be the primary motivation for the base’s establishment. South Korea is also seeking a military presence nearer to Socotra and China, to strengthenits claims of control and provide a foothold in the event of conflict. Without a base on Jeju, South Korea’s navy must operate in the area from Incheon, nine hours to the north.

Amid virulent local protests that have seen multiple arrests, the government has begun blasting rock face in scenic areas of Jeju to make way for the base. Locals are for their part protesting damage to the idyllic local environment. (Jeju is home to a wide range of unique wildlife and fauna, and is said to have a special, peaceful atmosphere that would be compromised by a large military installation).

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