Seoul tries to remain neutral after South China Sea ruling

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Seoul tries to remain neutral after South China Sea ruling

Seoul is in a tight spot following the ruling on the South China Sea dispute by an international tribunal in The Hague that rejects Beijing’s claim over the resource-rich waters, pitting China against the United States.

The Korean government, which has tried to remain neutral, cautiously stated on Wednesday it took note of the ruling on Tuesday by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which was overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines’ case against China and determined Beijing had no legal basis for a historical claim over the waters or its resources.

China immediately rejected the ruling.

In a spokesman’s statement, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the government “takes note of the arbitration,” adding that it hopes the South China Sea issue “will be resolved through peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts.”

The ministry also reiterated its consistent position that “the freedom of navigation and overflight should be safeguarded in the South China Sea, one of the world’s major sea lines of communication.”

It added that “disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved in accordance with relevant agreements, non-militarization commitments, as well as internationally established norms of conduct.”

China’s claim, which is estimated to cover an area that carries about $5 trillion in annual trade, overlaps claims by the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Philippines filed its complaint with the court in 2013 after China took control of a disputed reef off its coast called Scarborough Shoal.

The five-judge panel ruled that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, China does not have historic rights over most of the waterway and that it violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by constructing artificial islands and also that it caused “permanent irreparable harm” to the coral reef ecosystem.

John Kirby, a spokesman of the U.S. State Department, said on Tuesday that “the tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding for both China and the Philippines.”

“The ruling is null and void with no binding force,” said Lu Kang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in response to Washington’s statement. “It will in no way affect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.”

Lu added, “We oppose and refuse to accept any proposal or action based on the ruling.”

He had similar harsh words for Tokyo, after it released a statement calling the tribunal’s ruling legally binding, stating that Japan should “stop poking its nose in and playing up this issue.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping likewise declared on the same day that China “will never accept” the tribunal’s arbitration.

This issue has produced a schism between countries aligning themselves with China, whose biggest supporter is Russia, and those aligning themselves with the United States. Seoul received mounting pressure to take a stronger stance by Washington, which has insisted on “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, strategically important waters for Beijing’s naval power ambitions. Washington has sent warships to the South China Sea in support of maintaining what it calls freedom of navigation in the region, along with the flying of military aircraft.

During a summit with President Park Geun-hye last October, U.S. President Barack Obama said he expects Seoul to speak out when China fails to “abide by international norms and rules.”

“While this ruling creates confrontation between the United States and China,” one Korean foreign affairs official said, “our position is that the issue is not about us taking one side but maintaining peace and security in the region.”

The ruling comes amid a very sensitive period, as there is concern about backlash from Beijing over the decision to deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea. The deployment of Thaad has been protested by Beijing as going against its security interests.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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