Will S. Korea’s New Naval Base Provoke China?
Image Credit: flickr/87ab

Will S. Korea’s New Naval Base Provoke China?


On Jeju Island, a small paradise off the southwest coast of South Korea, protests have occurred on a near daily basis for almost three years.  

Although somewhat unusual for an island known for its popularity as a tourist destination for honeymooners, a segment of local residents, joined by domestic and transnational activists, remain staunchly opposed to the construction of a South Korean naval base on an “island of peace.”  

Among several their several grievances, opponents of the base argue that its construction may trigger a naval arms race in the region, while increasing tensions with China.

Most South Koreans have dismissed these concerns  as either a classic not-in-my-backyard type protest or a politically motivated agenda driven by leftist activists and opposition party members.  An August 2011 piece in The Diplomat about the Jeju base, for instance, dismissed opponents’ concerns about the purpose of the naval base and its ties to broader U.S. military objectives in the region.  As farfetched as activists may seem in their protests, however, their concerns are worth considering amid the worsening strategic environment in Northeast Asia.

The South Korean government began discussion about a potential naval base on Jeju Island in the 1990s, and during the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008) the base was approved as a way for the ROK military to transform itself into a more self-reliant defense force – that is, one less dependent on the United States.

Currently, the base remains consistent with South Korea’s future plans to modernize its military by building a blue-water navy by 2020.

The base also helps secure South Korean national interests amid China’s growing maritime ambitions. Given South Korea’s reliance on exports and imports, the vast majority of which are transported by sea, South Korea cannot afford to have its sea lanes disrupted. And, contrary to claims by some opponents of the Jeju base, the base is not a de facto U.S. base but unequivocally a South Korean one.

Where opponents are on more solid ground, however, is in drawing a link between the base and U.S. strategic interests in Asia.  Although the U.S. military must first make a request and have it accepted by the South Korean government, it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. Navy will eventually gain access to the base.  After all, the emerging U.S. force posture in the region is aimed at securing access to allied bases rather than committing to any large-scale, permanent ones. And, given the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance to South Korea, there is no reason to believe that Seoul would reject a request for port access.

This is what makes the base so potentially destabilizing for its detractors as they believe that giving the U.S. access to the base will provoke China. Of course, South Korea does not want to antagonize China, or see tensions rise between Beijing and Washington.  Unfortunately, state behavior in international relations is often driven by (mis) perceptions.  In this particular case, Chinese perceptions of the U.S.-ROK alliance are what worry peace activists.  They fear that the Jeju base will trigger a regional naval arms race.

Protests or no protests, construction of the Jeju Naval base is in full swing and quickly becoming a reality. The conflict scenarios which concern activists are often built on worst case scenarios and tend to fall on the alarmist side. 

Nevertheless, as base construction proceeds, policymakers should consider some of the broader geostrategic implications of the base. Although China has registered any major objections to the base as of yet, mid-level bureaucrats have referenced base construction in relation to the China-ROK territorial dispute over the Socotra Rocks.   

South Korean policymakers therefore need to reassure China that the base exists solely for defensive purposes, and tread carefully if it chooses to negotiate basing access rights with the United States. Beyond enhanced South Korean diplomacy, Beijing, Seoul, and Washington may want to include the Jeju base in future trilateral dialogues.   As long time peace activist Joseph Gerson argues, the aim is to seek “common security” among East Asian actors rather than pursue “zero-sum resolutions to the region's conflicts.”

Andrew Yeo is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He is the author of Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests.

August 17, 2013 at 11:47

But the people of Gangjeong Village and Jeju Island as a whole voted for President Park and she was promosing to build the base. If there anti-base movement was really so powerful, why did the people not vote for the opposition when they had the chance?

July 11, 2013 at 18:33

Your lack of understand of history of the Korea war and China makes you claim very ignorant. China's maritime ambitions is basically what any soverign country would do, to protect it's lands. However many asia countries makes similiar claims especially in South China Sea where it remains disputed. If US military naval power comes, it would inevitably increase chaos and confict in Asia. USA has no right to be near Asia as it is half way around the globe. The US navy has started 're-openning' bases that was closed since the Cold War against USSR. China is seeking deplomatic talks with its neigbours and the last thing it needs is a foreign outsider who interests does not lie in its national security. The media (western) constantly propagandize China, with warmongering journalists wanting to earn a living from feeding the Anti-China mentality of the people.

Little Helmsman
July 11, 2013 at 08:47

South Korea is just trying to be polite to the regional bully, China because polite people usually have consideration for impolite and overbearing people or neighbor. But at the end of the day South Korean elite know only to well it was the Communist bully of China which made it possible for the Korean blood letting in the Korean War! It is still regional bully of China which enable new life to the rotten regime of the north under lil Kim!

South Korean officials may bow and smile at Chinese officials but in the back of their mind they know it was Mao and his North Korean underlings which made the separation of Korea possible into the 21st century. Koreans know their history only too well!

July 11, 2013 at 08:24

It's also worth taking the focus away from China for a second and acknowledge that a military base on Jeju Island is irreversibly destroying the freshwater supply and marine life on the island, and polluting the land and water with toxic, potentially nuclear, chemicals. The people of Gaengjong Village do not want the base there, they do not want to be pawns in a military game just as much as any of us wouldn't want the same in our communities.

Whether this base provokes China or not, the bottom line is it shouldn't be there in the first place.

TV Monitor
July 11, 2013 at 02:18

There is some misunderstanding that the Korean military doesn't want carriers in the Jeju naval base. To the contrary, the ROK Navy is now drumming up the publicity campaign of building Korea's own carrier battle group to be based in Jeju in the next decade, insisting that two carrier battle groups are needed to ensure Korea's survival against external threats(Be it JMSDF or PLAN).

So you are going to see carrier battle groups hosted in the Jeju naval base in the next decade, be it American or Korean. So why would the Korean military not welcome the US CBG in Jeju Naval Base? 

Regis Tremblay
July 11, 2013 at 00:03


A shocking documentary about the struggle of the people of Jeju Island, S. Korea. Set in the context of the American presence in Korea after World War II, the film reveals horrible atrocities at the hands of the U.S. Military Government of Korea.

Using previously secret and classified photos, film and documents, this will be the first English-language documentary about the struggle of the brave people of Gangjeong Village who are opposing the military advance of the United States, just as their parents and relatives did in 1947. As then, they are being arrested, jailed, fined, and hospitalized for resisting the construction of a massive naval base that will accommodate America’s “pivot to Asia,” and will destroy their 400 year old village and their UNESCO protected environment.

And yet, the indomitable spirit of the villagers and their supporters, who have not lost hope in spite of overwhelming odds, will inspire and motivate everyone who believes there is a better way to live together on this planet.

Regis Tremblay
July 10, 2013 at 23:58

It may be true that the base is not a de facto U.S. Naval base, it would be naive to think that the U.S. already with more than 30,000 boots on the ground and in the air in S. Korea, has not bullied the ROK into building that base to accommodate Obama's "pivot to Asia" and America's attempts to encircle China and Russia with full spectrum dominance.

The U.S. military and government are likewise bullying the Philippines, Vietnam, Okinama, Guam, Australia and other soverign states to allow the U.S. to port 60% od its naval might in their territories.

Protests against this American imperial expansion and attemps at domination are ongoing throughout the Pacific Islands, as well as Europe and the Americas. Wherever the U.S. has ventured throughout its entire history it has committed genocide, destroyed centuries-old cultures, pillaged the resources and destroyed ecosystems. Precisely what is happening in Gangjeong Village, Jeju-do, S. Korea today.

This imperial aggression must be stopped before it destroys all life on the planet.

Scott C-P
July 10, 2013 at 23:02

More on Jeju naval base here, including the ROK court cases, and mineral rights implications from Socotra "ownership": http://news.usni.org/2012/07/25/rokn-the-boat-south-korea-expands-its-naval-bases

M Hoey
July 10, 2013 at 22:58

The base is located 199km from China's mainland. Common sense dictates that if a US carrier, destroyer or nuclear sub is housed for a period of time at the Jeju naval base it could cause tensions. Gentleman put you chessboard way of seeing the world aside. This base is not good for the regional security balance, it is only going to bring heat on Korea and is going to endanger the people who inhabit what is known by the United Nations as the "Island of World Peace." For those who want to mislead or show their lack of knowledge by perpetuating this idea that China is a threat to South Korea, perhaps you are missing the fact that China is Korea's number one trading partner and that Jeju is the number one tourist destination for Chinese citizens. China is a threat to the United States and that is the driver here. 

July 10, 2013 at 15:43

what? are you a 10 year old?

did you even read the article?

the reason is SK does not particularly want a regional arms race and china is a major trading partner and major decision maker/breaker with regards to a united korea and china could, if they really wanted, cause korea to remain divided for the forseeable future, or otoh help bring about a much smoother unification. 

Little Helmsman
July 10, 2013 at 02:54

Why does ROK need to reassure China about anything? ROK is a sovereign state, that can formulate its own policy! It was the PRC that tried to eradicate the ROK in the 50s. It was the PRC which enabled the DPRK to spill Korean blood. No need for ROK to placate the PRC!

TV Monitor
July 10, 2013 at 01:30

The author doesn't understand that the ROK military doesn't care about Chinese protest too much because this is an issue of national security, not an issue of diplomacy. There are simply no compromises in the issues of national security and territorial integrity. This is why the ROK govenment put that manned permanent observation station on top of Socotra Rocks and ignoring the Chinese protest in the process.

By the same principle, the Jeju Naval Base, with its ability to host two US carrier battle groups simultanously, is critical in Korea's national maritime security and will be built and operated irrelevant of the Chinese protest and will serve a critical role in the overall anti-China containment strategy, where any potential Yellow Sea naval blockade operations will be launched from there.

From the US perspective, the access to Jeju Naval Base is a critical strategic asset because the base's proximity to Shanghai(some 500 km away) enables the US navy to naval blockcade from Shanghai and up with only a dozen warships.

July 10, 2013 at 01:05

Why shouldn't the Chinese surge in Naval power and their corresponding seizure of vast expanses of other country's waters and territory not count as a provocation in and of itself thus requiring a response such as the pivot and this new Jeju base? This article seems to pretend the cart is in front of the horse while not mentioning the horse.

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