Dealing with the tensionTensions over the South China Sea are rapidly deepening. China persists in constructing artificial islands in the waters after claiming a territorial right to most of the area. In response, the United States carried out a show of force in the sea to protest China’s territorial claim. As tensions soar, the possibility of an accidental clash between the two superpowers is growing.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Thursday went aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as a show of force after Uncle Sam last week sent a guided-missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Lassen, on a brief patrol inside a 12-nautical-mile radius that China claims as its territorial waters. China denounced the move as a serious provocation threatening its sovereignty and security interests before warning that it will carry out a shooting exercise using live ammunition in protest of America’s potential infiltration of its territorial waters.
The U.S. claims that the right to free navigation in the waterway must be fully protected based on international law and norms, while China is pressing ahead with the construction of the island. Both are protecting their strategic interests in the sea. The waterway is the world’s second-largest trade route, and one-third of global trade passes through it. It is also a crucial route for petroleum transport from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, East China Sea and the Japanese archipelago. Therefore, the long-term Sino-U.S. fight for superpower control of the Pacific depends on who takes control of that route in the South China Sea.
Peace and safety of the waters are directly linked to our national interests, as 30 percent of Korea’s overall exports and 90 percent of imported oil go through the waterway. In that context, Defense Minister Han Min-koo rightfully made it clear in the defense ministers’ meeting at the Asean Plus Three meeting on Wednesday that the freedom of navigation must be guaranteed in the disputed waters. It was also appropriate that he underscored the need to refrain from actions that could affect peace in the South China Sea.
The conflict between Washington and Beijing over the sea route is not a problem confined to the two powers because it affects all countries in East Asia. Their fight should never hurt other nations in the region. China must refrain from constructing its artificial islands, and the U.S. must keep its demonstration of military power to a minimum to avert an escalation of tension. Both powers also must not force Korea to take sides with either.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 7, Page 30