West Sea Becomes New Arena for Big-Power Rivalry

On June 1, 2012 by stratagem

Source: Chosun Ilbo

The West Sea is turning into a new arena of competition between the U.S., China and Japan. China plans to launch its first aircraft carrier in August, while Japan is mulling the deployment of Aegis destroyers near the West Sea. The U.S. is willing to dispatch its own aircraft carriers to the West Sea at any time if necessary.

The West Sea drew international attention following the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010. Eight months later North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in the same waters. China fiercely protested when the U.S. dispatched the aircraft carrier George Washington to the West Sea to discourage further provocations from North Korea.

Japan’s Defense Ministry is mulling the deployment of Aegis destroyers to waters near the West Sea under the pretext of detecting North Korean missile launches. Experts suspect this is really a creeping expansion of the Japanese military’s range. “This appears to be a highly political move aimed at keeping China in check,” said a high-ranking government official here. The West Sea is a sort of gateway to China, so any moves to dispatch warships to waters nearby draw strong protests from Beijing.

◆ Extension of Naval Disputes

The U.S., China and Japan are vying for control of the East China and South China seas, and the West Sea looks increasingly like an extension of this power struggle. China is pursuing a policy of naval superiority powered by its newfound economic might.

Beijing plans to broaden its area of naval operations to Guam, Indonesia and Saipan by 2020 forming what it calls an “island chain,” while flying its red flag on the seven seas by 2050.

Under this broad strategy, China took a hard line in a dispute with Japan in September of 2010 over the Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands. China has also clashed diplomatically with ASEAN as well as the U.S. over the South China Sea. It has bolstered its arms spending by more than 10 percent every year and pursues an “anti-access” policy to waters near China.

In contrast, the U.S. views the West Sea as an area of joint operations with South Korea. In this situation, Tokyo’s moves to deploy Aegis destroyers to waters near the West Sea could heighten the possibility of disputes in the region, experts say.

◆ S.Korean Naval Base

While the U.S., China and Japan are engaged in a power struggle in the West Sea, the South Korean government is clashing with civic groups over plans to build a naval base on the southern resort island of Jeju as a forward base for operations. The government has pursued the base since the Roh Moo-hyun administration to protect southern ocean trade routes and respond more effectively with maritime disputes with China and Japan. But fierce opposition from a handful of civic groups caused a 13-month delay in construction.

Only 15 percent of construction has been completed so far. The Navy plans to complete the base by December 2015 and station troops currently based in Busan and Jinhae there for deployment on naval missions in case of a clash between China and Japan. Around 20 naval vessels are scheduled to be stationed at the base, but the project still faces many obstacles.

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