Korea Caught in a Bind Between China and U.S.

      November 29, 2013 12:07

      China's unilateral announcement of an air defense identification zone has heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington and put South Korea in a bind since it relies on the two superpowers for business and security.

      In the summer of 2010, South Korea and the U.S. held a massive joint military exercise on the West Sea as a show of force against North Korea after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan. The drill included U.S. aircraft carriers. China protested vehemently, prompting the South and the U.S. to hold the drills in the East Sea instead. The incident demonstrates the ramifications that clashing Chinese and U.S. interests can have on South Korean policies.

      Beijing is suspicious of any closing of ranks between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. The government here has always been cautious in approaching the issue. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has often called for closer coordination in joint naval exercises involving the South, the U.S. and Japan. And while the U.S. and Japan have sought intensive military drills involving mock naval combat exercises, South Korea has only taken part in search and rescue operations for fear of alarming China.

      If tensions mount between the U.S. and China, South Korea would come under greater pressure to take sides.

      U.S. Navy FA-18 Hornets are parked on the USS George Washington during a joint annual drill with Japan, at sea on Thursday. /AP-Newsis

      As witnessed in 2010, joint South Korea-U.S. naval drills on the West Sea involving American aircraft carriers could turn into a hot potato. China has deployed its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the West Sea fleet in Qingdao. A military source said that China views the West Sea as its "own backyard" and is easily offended by operations there involving the U.S.

      South Korea and the U.S. have held regular joint military exercises on the West Sea at least once a year and the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington took part in one last month.

      Seoul has sought to bolster military exchanges with Beijing to guard against North Korean provocations, but Washington has been vocally wary of these moves and any strengthening of South Korea-China military ties.

      The issue of Japanese moves to allow its military to be deployed overseas is another area of contention between the U.S. and China. The U.S. actively supports Japan’s right to so-called collective self-defense to keep China’s rising military power in check, and Chinese is naturally opposed for the same reason.

      Seoul too is wary of Japanese military expansionism, fearing it could lead to the deployment of Japanese troops on the Korean Peninsula.

      Another issue of contention is the U.S.-led missile defense system. South Korea has dodged joining it so far for fear of opposition from China, and has been seeking instead to develop a homegrown missile defense shield that can protect it more effectively against North Korean missiles.

      Washington has accused Seoul of being lukewarm and made an unofficial request to allow the deployment of X-band radars on Baeknyeong Island. The powerful radars are capable of detecting missiles flying as far as 1,800 km away.

      Taken together, these developments make for an uncomfortable position for South Korea, obliging it once again to carefully negotiate between the power plays of bigger forces.

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