News / Asia

    Maritime Disputes Muddy Asian Waters

    FILE - A South Korean ship (R) sails by Navy MSB (Movement Sea Base) off the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea.
    FILE - A South Korean ship (R) sails by Navy MSB (Movement Sea Base) off the South Korea-controlled island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea.
    Tensions continue to rise in Asia due to maritime territorial disputes. South Korea has gone ahead with military drills near an islet it controls despite protests from Japan, which also claims the territory. And China is placing a second oil rig into waters off Vietnam’s coast where the two countries are embroiled in a protracted dispute.
     
    South Korea’s navy says it conducted a firing exercise off its east coast to boost its ability to repel any possible attack by North Korean submarines.
     
    The Yonhap news agency says drills have been conducted in the waters on a regular basis, but this is the first time the military announced them publicly.
     
    That prompted a harsh response from Japan, which claimed that the location of the announced South Korean drill includes Japanese territorial waters.
     
    The area is near an island administered for decades by South Korea, which calls it Dokdo and which the Japanese refer to as Takeshima.
     
    Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, calls the South Korean drill unacceptable.
     
    The top Japanese government spokesman said Seoul’s action is “extremely regrettable” and Tokyo strongly urged it to cancel the exercise.
     
    South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Wi Yong-seop said Seoul “will not take into consideration any demands or interference” from Japan on this matter.
     
    Wi added that the exercise, which he characterized as for self-defense, “is progressing as planned.”
     
    The South Korean exercise involves 19 naval ships and reportedly includes firing torpedoes, ship-to-ship cruise missiles and air-to-sea Harpoon missiles.
     
    South Korea’s navy quoted naval operations chief Admiral Hwang Ki-chul as ordering officers to pursue to the end North Korean submarines and “bury them at sea” if provoked.
     
    Earlier this week, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un inspected one of his naval units in the eastern sea and was photographed in the conning tower of a rusting green submarine.
     
    Kim was quoted by state media telling the commanding officers and sailors they should be aware “hateful enemies” are awaiting a chance to invade, so it is imperative to prepare for battle.
     
    Three thousand kilometers to the south, increased Chinese maritime activity continues to generate attention and strong concern from Vietnam.
     
    The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration has announced a second oil rig, the Nanhai-9, is being parked in waters equidistant from China’s Hainan island and the central Vietnamese coast.

    The new platform in the Gulf of Tonkin, where there is no consensus on border demarcation, is more distant from the disputed Paracel islands than the first oil rig.
     
    Placement of the initial rig, Haiyang Shiyou-981, early last month flared tensions between Beijing and Hanoi, with accusations traded of vessels ramming ships of those of the other country. It also prompted an outbreak of anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam

    At a briefing Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said there was no reason for other countries to be upset about China locating more oil rigs in the South China Sea.

    "I would like to ask you to look at the map patiently and you will see very clearly that the coordinators are completely in the waters close to China's Hainan and Guangdong provinces," she said. "So I think for these normal activities there is no need to read more into this or to have an over-active imagination."
     
    China provided the first rig with an escort of 80 civilian and coast guard ships to its location in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
     
    Tense bilateral discussions in Hanoi Wednesday about the rig resulted in no reported progress.
     
    China took the Paracel chain from South Vietnam in 1974. Vietnam and China fought a land border war five years later.
     
    Beijing claims virtually all of the South China Sea, waters that are rich in natural resources.
     
    Besides Vietnam and China, five other governments - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the  Philippines and Taiwan - have conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
     
    The rising tension in the waters is also prompting concern from countries in the region not party to the dispute, including Australia. Its foreign minister, Julie Bishop, in an interview with VOA’s Korean Service, said that while her country does not take a stand on how to resolve the claims, it does want the issue resolved without force.
     
    “We call on all parties to negotiate and resolve the issues in accordance with international law. The countries of ASEAN are proposing a code of conduct with China and we support that policy decision,” said Bishop.
     
    A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Thursday said Beijing is willing to work with ASEAN to “steadily pursue forward consultations” on the maritime code of conduct. A meeting to discuss this is to be held next week on the Indonesian island of Bali.
     
    Analysts have expressed skepticism the Chinese will agree to any binding code. They note such an agreement would hamper China’s ability to project its control of the sea through maritime patrols and naval exercises.

    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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