Korea caught in middle of China-U.S. dispute

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Korea caught in middle of China-U.S. dispute

The Korean government called for a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, careful not to take sides amid increasing maritime tension between Beijing and Washington.

“We have strongly urged restraint on any actions that affect the peace and stability of the South China Sea region,” a Blue House official told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday. “Tension in this region should be resolved in a peaceful manner following international standards.”

Seoul is finding itself trapped between two superpowers, both key allies and economic partners.

The reiteration of the Blue House’s position, which has been made at international conferences and other venues, shows that Seoul is determined not to take sides.

On Tuesday, the U.S.S. Lassen, an American guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the artificially dredged Subi Reef in the South China Sea for an hour-long patrol.

The reef is part of the Spratly Islands archipelago where Beijing is reclaiming land. It is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The United States said its ship’s patrol, which was warned of in advance, was an exercise of the freedom of navigation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Tuesday called the United States’ move “illegal” and a “deliberate provocation.”

Beijing regards the 12 nautical miles of water around Subi Reef as its territorial waters. Washington says they are international waters that anybody can freely navigate.

The Korean official said Seoul has a vested interest in the waters of the region. “We hold great strategic interest in the South China Sea region, which is an important sea route to us through which 30 percent of all our exports pass,” he said, “and 90 percent of our energy imports pass through.”

Seoul has been careful to avoid taking a position on the artificially built islands. On Tuesday, Noh Kwang-il, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The Korean government has emphasized the guarantee of freedom of navigation on the waters and freedom to fly over the South China Sea, as well as complying with making notifications of actions there.”

Washington has been pressing Seoul to take a clearer position.

During a Seoul visit in May, Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, urged Korea to take a stronger stance on the South China Sea issue.

Likewise, in his summit with Park Geun-hye on Oct. 16, President Barack Obama requested that Korea cooperate with the United States in urging China to follow international regulations. According to officials here, should Beijing fail to follow such regulations, Seoul may have to express a stronger position.

“If Vietnam or the Philippines are the countries directly involved, Korea is a country that merely has an interest,” said Kim Tae-ho, an international studies professor at the Hallym University of Graduate Studies. “Therefore, it will be difficult for the United states and China to make Korea state its position.”

He continued, “And even if we arrive at such a situation, it will be preferable for Korea to repeat a position that strictly adheres to a theoretical position as it does now. At times, not having a position can be a position in itself.”

One question is whether the South China Sea issue will be raised at a meeting of leaders of Korea, China and Japan in Seoul on Sunday.

BY SARAH KIM, CHOI IK-JAE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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