Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Next Flashpoint?

A dispute with South Korea over a remote reef has prompted a tense exchange of words between the two countries. There could be more to come.

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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. 

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.

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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).

Still, flaws in the base’s design and construction have been pointed out by analysts, and the government is apparently rushing the construction ahead of next month’s election and China’s claim over Socotra. South Korea is also establishing an integrated regional defense missile system in the area, apparently with China in mind.

China, meanwhile, has expanded its navy as its economy and general global profile have grown. But its build-up around Socotra could set off an arms race with South Korea. China’s official military budget for 2010 was $78 billion, with some analysts suggesting that more than one-third of that is pegged for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PLAN has taken a particular interest in the South China Sea and has boosted its presence, and some say claims, in the area in recent years. It is also an area of busy shipping lanes and one with strategic importance to China’s claim to Taiwan.

In addition, China has built a major base in Yalong Bay that hosts submarines capable of quickly moving throughout the area.

Unsurprisingly, all this has meant that vessels from the two countries have already clashed in the area. South Korea has felt pressure to expand its Coast Guard and naval fleets in the Yellow Sea after violent clashes with Chinese fishing vessels in 2011. On December 12, a South Korean Coast Guard officer was stabbed to death by a Chinese fisherman who was fishing illegally in South Korean waters.  That was only the bloodiest in a series of similar incidents.

China is South Korea’s leading trading partner, and the two countries are expected to begin discussions of a free trade agreement over the next couple of months. But they’ve already experienced friction this month over North Korean defectors being held in China. South Korea has asked that the defectors be treated as a humanitarian issue, while China, considering the North Koreans economic migrants, is likely to repatriate them.

There’s still a chance for a peaceful resolution. At a news briefing on March 12, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin said that bilateral negotiations would be needed to confirm jurisdiction.

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However, an official from South Korea’s Blue House stated: “We have no intention of allowing this to become a serious problem, based on the fact that Ieodo naturally falls under our jurisdiction.” This approach echoes the South Korean line on the Dokdo islets dispute with Japan, implying that the rocks of course belong to the South and so there is no debate to be had.

Both countries are stubborn and ambitious, adding an additional layer of potential misunderstanding – or even conflict – in an already fraught part of the world.

Steven Borowiec is a freelance journalist who has reported for GlobalPost, the Toronto Star and the Guardian, among other publications.