China’s provocative zoneBeijing turned down Seoul’s request to redraw its new air defense identification zone, which overlaps with 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) of South Korea’s own zone. At a South Korea-China vice defense ministerial-level dialogue in Seoul, Korea officially lodged a complaint over China’s unilateral establishment of a new air identification defense zone. The Chinese officials, however, refused to make any changes to the new air map that encompasses Ieodo and scratches the edge of Jeju Island’s airspace. China’s new zone, aimed at reasserting its claim of the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which Japan claims and calls Senkaku, has now spilled over to Korea, elevating geopolitical tensions in the region to an unprecedented level.
Last weekend, China announced the new zone and warned that any unauthorized noncommercial aircraft flying through a broad area of the East China Sea - that included territories claimed by both Japan and South Korea - would face “defensive emergency measures.” It had no consultations with Seoul even as it infringed on Korean’s own air defense identification zone. Korea clearly declared that it cannot accept that unilateral action and maintained that it will continue administrative activities in and around Ieodo. The government plans to also redraw its air defense identification zone to assert sovereignty over Ieodo and asked Beijing to correct the overlap with Korea’s zone. Our demands are rightful and just.
The South Korean military on Wednesday sent a surveillance P3-C aircraft to make a routine flight over the area of a South Korean maritime research center built atop the disputed reef without issuing a prior notice to China. If China responded with military action against the flight, it would be accountable for any damages. Expanding Korea’s air zone to cover Ieodo could trigger a spat with Japan, which has been including the underwater reefs in its air defense space since 1969. Seoul would have to consult with Tokyo before making the changes to rule out any misunderstandings between the two countries.
The United States is taking China’s unilateral move as a “provocative” challenge to its predominance in East Asia. It flew two B-52 bombers over the East China Sea without prior notification to signal its defiance to Beijing. The territorial spat between China and Japan has drawn in the United States. In the struggle for power and order in East Asia, South Korea will have to navigate subtly to avoid the awkward situation of being asked to make a choice. We must be firm in our stand but do the utmost to avoid misunderstandings or accidental clashes.