Wrong Play in Dealing with China

By Victor Cha

ROK Airforce F-16s

Two Republic of Korea Airforce F-16s on take-off from Kunsan Air-Base in South Korea. Source: UNC – CFC – USFK’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

China’s Ministry of National Defense announced on November 23 the creation of a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, sparking a new level of tensions with Japan, the United States and Korea. The Chinese zone significantly overlaps with Japanese and Korean zones. It is imperative that Seoul reject this unilateral declaration by Beijing, and in the strongest possible terms. In this context, the news of what transpired at the meeting last week between Seoul and Beijing’s vice ministers of defense is worrying.

The Chinese zone is very problematic for Koreans. It creates a list of new identification rules – a flight plan, radio correspondence and more – that governs any foreign aircraft, military or civilian, flying within the zone. These planes must now identify themselves to Beijing, either to the Chinese Foreign Ministry or the civil aviation administration.

Under the announcement, the air defense identification zone comes under the administration of the Chinese Defense Ministry, which reserves the right to scramble fighter jets to confirm the identity of these planes. Moreover, the Chinese may intercept planes whose flight paths cross into China’s new declared zone, but also those that run parallel to (i.e., do not enter) the zone. Civilian airlines may choose not to identify themselves in advance, as Japanese aircraft have declared, in an act of non-recognition of the zone, but this may prompt Chinese interceptions, which could be extremely dangerous.

The Chinese military has already launched air patrols of the zone – involving a Tu-154 and a Y-8. This, in turn, prompted Japan to send two F-15 fighters to intercept them. The United States flew two B-52 bombers through the area to challenge the new zone in a previously planned training mission. China insists that its new zone is in accordance with the common international practices of establishing such zones. However, the United States and Japan have issued clear rejections of the zones. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both issued strong and immediate condemnations of Chinese actions as unilateral and potentially escalatory. Hagel in particular described it as a destabilizing act meant to change the status quo in the region.

The Republic of Korea has correctly responded strongly to the news. Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense protested the Chinese actions. For Korea, the issue is that China’s new zone overlaps with Korea’s zone off the southern island of Jeju, where the Chinese claim the 20-by-115 kilometers (12-by-71 miles) of sky encroaches on airspace already patrolled by the Korean Air Force. Included within the Chinese zone is a Korea-controlled submerged rock, known as Ieodo in Korean. This rock, known in Chinese as Suyan Rock and internationally as Socotra Rock, has been historically disputed between Korea and China over its ownership, and consequently whether it belongs in Korea or China’s exclusive economic zone. Korea built the Ieodo Ocean Research Center, an unmanned scientific station on the rock in 2003, which lies 149 kilometers south of the Mara Island near Jeju to great objections from the Chinese. The Korean Navy includes Ieodo within its area of operations, further solidifying the possibility of conflicts on the sea between Korea and China.

China’s actions put a damper on the growing positive relations between China and Korea under President Park Geun-hye. Just a couple of weeks ago China’s state councilor, Yang Jiechi, paid a well-received three-day visit to Seoul, where he met with President Park and a host of other high-ranking Korean officials, including Kim Jang-soo, the national security chief, and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, to discuss progress made in the ROK-China Strategic Cooperation Partnership. And before that, there was the successful Park-Xi Jinping summit in June, where both leaders agreed to take the relationship to the next level in their joint communique.

Any hopes of working out a “deal” with China on the air defense identification zone were dashed at the bilateral vice ministers of defense conference last week. The Chinese flatly dismissed Korea’s protests over China’s new zone. Press reports, however, reveal that the Korean side offered a proposal for China to redraw the zone to avoid the overlap with Korea’s zone.

China rejected this proposal, of course. But what is worrying about these press reports is Korea’s willingness to “de-link” its problems with China from the rest of the region. What would have happened if Beijing accepted Korea’s proposal? Would Seoul then have accepted China’s zone as long as it had no overlap with that of the ROK, while the United States and Japan would have continued to protest it? This may have seemed like a clever policy in the short term to avoid a crisis with China. But in the long term, this is detrimental to Korean interests.

In international relations theory, the way a rising great power establishes an empire in its region is by “picking off” its smaller neighbors with individual deals so that the region does not balance against it. It is a “divide and conquer” strategy. South Korea’s proposal on China’s new zone at the vice ministers’ meeting is exactly the type of policy choice that will allow China to assert greater influence in the region. It is not the right policy.

Now that Beijing has rejected Seoul’s proposal, the Park government does not have much of a choice but to stand with the United States, Australia and Japan in staunch opposition to China’s new zone. Perhaps this was not Seoul’s first choice, but cutting an individual “deal” with China only further isolates Korea from its allies and sets it up for Chinese domination.

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Korea JoongAng Ilbo on December 5, 2013 here.

Dr. Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @vcgiants.

Victor Cha

Victor Cha

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government and director for Asian studies at Georgetown University.

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