China tried muscling South Korea in Yellow Sea

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China tried muscling South Korea in Yellow Sea

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China made an attempt to expand its military influence in the waters near South Korea by pressuring the navy to stay away from its unilaterally drawn area of operations, a senior military source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

The revelation came amidst escalating military tensions between the two countries after China unilaterally proclaimed an expanded air defense identification zone, which includes South Korea’s Ieodo, on Nov. 23.

“When Admiral Choi Yoon-hee, then-navy chief of staff and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China in early July, China demanded that the South Korean navy should not cross into their area of operations in the Yellow Sea,” said the military official.

“It was the first time that China made such a complaint,” he said.

China was referring to a line it unilaterally drew in the waters west of the Korean Peninsula. For decades, North Korea and China used the line, at 124 degrees east longitude, as their military demarcation line.

But South Korea didn’t recognize that demarcation.

“Choi and Admiral Wu Shengli, China’s navy commander in chief, had official talks in Beijing on July 11, and the meeting ended amicably,” the source said. “After the meeting, Wu asked Choi to sit down for an additional discussion.

In that meeting, Wu complained about the South Korean military crossing the demarcation at 124 degrees east longitude, the source said.

The Chinese commander also asked Choi to stop South Korea-U.S. joint maritime exercises in the Yellow Sea.

According to the source, Choi said South Korea has no choice but to operate in the waters around the demarcation line because North Korea’s submarines crossed the line to infiltrate into the South. Choi reportedly told China that the South had no intention to stop that practice and the two sides failed to reach agreement on the issue, the source said.

When China and North Korea drew their borders in 1962, they agreed to use 124 degrees east longitude as their maritime demarcation line. Although it should only serve as the border between the two countries, China was insisting its demarcation extends south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas.

The area of operations that China seems to want to make exclusive is in international waters, but it is a practice that neighboring countries stay away from the zone. The waters near the 124 degrees east longitude, however, are located near Baeknyeong Island, South Korea’s northernmost island in the Yellow Sea, only 17 kilometers (10 miles) away from the North.

Because the North has made attempts to infiltrate into the South through the waters near Baeknyeong, the South Korean navy regularly operates in that area.

China’s complaint in July is part of its latest strategy to expand its military influence in the region, analysts said.

“The South Korean navy does not intrude into the Chinese area of operations, but they operate near the zone,” said Lim Han-kyu, a professor at Hyupsung University who served as vice chief of the Naval Education and Training Command. “In the past, China never responded to the practices, but it raised the issue this time because its maritime strategy is shifting.”

China built Liaoning, its first aircraft carrier, and operationally deployed it recently as a part of a comprehensive strategy to extend its maritime power.

“Recently, China is more and more involved in demonstrating its hardware against the United States in the East China Sea and South China Sea,” said Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network, a think tank of military experts. “By using the South Korea-U.S. joint drills as an excuse, it can try to expand its front further into the Yellow Sea.”

BY JEONG YONG-SU [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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