A senior Cheong Wa Dae official on Sunday said Seoul will raise no objection to Japan's dispatch of Aegis destroyers near the West Sea since the government believes "guaranteeing navigational freedom on the high seas coincides with Seoul's security interests." Tokyo claims it is sending the destroyers to detect North Korean missile launches.
When North Korea launched what it said was a space rocket in April, Japan dispatched Aegis destroyers to the East Sea and East China Sea, but they were unable to detect the launch. Tokyo nonetheless continues to mull deploying the Aegis destroyers in waters near the expected launch site -- whether they are the East Sea or West Sea -- claiming the North is planning another missile test.
Under international law, ships can freely sail the open seas and cross Korean waters in the West Sea. A Russian naval vessel crossed the West Sea in April this year to take part in massive joint drills with China off the coast of Qingdao. Cheong Wa Dae appears to believe it is better to allow foreign ships to sail freely in the open waters near the West Sea than for any one country to think that region is under its exclusive operational control. The prevailing view among government officials is that this serves South Korea's security interests.
But this is a much more complicated issue. If the warships vessels of the world's superpowers sail freely through the West Sea, Seoul first needs to put some serious thought into whether this would guarantee peace in the region or heighten tensions.
The two Koreas and China tend to view the West Sea as their own. It is a geopolitically sensitive area. The Chinese and Japanese navies clashed there in the Sino-Japanese War, while Russian and Japanese battleships fought there during the Russo-Japanese War. Those clashes had a serious impact on the Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington entered the West Sea in November 2011 in response to North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. At that time, China protested strongly, labeling the move a "challenge" to its security, even though it was only natural for South Korea and its ally to conduct drills to prevent another attack.
China is bolstering its naval strength to expand its reach from the West Sea to the South China Sea and continues to clash diplomatically with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines over control of islands in the East China and South China seas. Japan's deployment of Aegis destroyers on the West Sea may be intended to thwart a North Korean provocation. But the move could exacerbate tensions in the region, especially considering the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands. The situation is far too complicated for the government to welcome the deployment of Japanese Aegis destroyers to the West Sea with open arms.