China's State Oceanic Administration announced in March this year that it would include the submerged rocks of Ieo Island, where its exclusive economic zone overlaps with Korea's, among places to be monitored by patrol boats and surveillance aircraft. And on Sunday it demonstrated drones that are part of a remote-controlled system to monitor the island.
Ieo Island lies 149 km southwest of Korea's southernmost island of Mara, but the nearest Chinese island is Sheshan Dao off the coast of Shanghai, 287 km away. Although EEZs of Korea and China overlap at the rocks, they are clearly under Korean jurisdiction according to the principle of equidistance. Korea declared the waters surrounding Ieo Island part of its own territory in 1952 and built a scientific research station there in 2003.
Korea has been calling on China for the last 16 years to clarify the maritime border between the two sides in waters south of Jeju Island, but Beijing has put off the talks until now. It thought that China's reluctance to clarify the boundary aimed to protect Chinese fishermen who work in those waters. But in 2006, China suddenly named Ieo Island "Suyan Rock." Last year, when a Korean vessel was trying to salvage a sunken ship there, China sent a government-owned ship and claimed the area is under Chinese control.
Now, China has started deploying naval patrol boats and even drones to monitor the area constantly. It is clearly seeking to turn it into disputed territory.
Ieo Island consists of submerged rocks which cannot in themselves be assigned territorial status. China's moves stem from its ambition to gain control of waters stretching from the West Sea and down to the South China Sea. This summer, China unilaterally declared the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea as its own, and dispatched soldiers to some of them. The islands are under dispute with various ASEAN member countries.
China is also embroiled in a standoff with Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu islands. Taiwan has joined the dispute, with Taiwanese and Japanese vessels firing water cannon at each other in waters surrounding the islands on Tuesday.
The Chinese government must think carefully about the repercussions of its territorial ambitions, which are one manifestation of its growing heft in the global arena. Beijing must realize that its actions are prompting threatened neighbors to form an anti-Chinese alliance.
There is no telling what China will do next. The government must waste no time in wrapping up EEZ talks with China so that it can protect Korea's maritime sovereignty. At the same time, it needs to speed up construction of the naval base on Jeju Island, which has been slowed by opposition from leftwing factions who are blind to the actual security threats Korea faces.