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Where does South Korea Stand on the South China Sea Dispute?

In May the world was jolted to learn that China sank Vietnamese vessels that were trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea (SCS). Along with its vast reserves of untapped natural gas, the South China Sea is also important as a shipping route. The Republic of Korea (ROK), a rising regional power and close economic partner to China, has a vested interest in any conflict in the SCS. South Korea’s economic growth strategy in the last decade has been heavily export-oriented, and currently, exports account for over half of the country’s GDP. This increased dependence on exports has affected the ROK-China relationship. Last year, China accounted for over a quarter of South Korea’s total exports.

From China’s perspective, its biggest challenge is not dealing with its nearest neighbors, but rather the international community that has come to support these smaller nations. With a $122 billion budget in 2013, China is only second behind the U.S. in defense expenditures. An unchecked China could easily overpower its neighboring countries that have considerably weaker defense systems, and the recent attack on the Vietnam vessels is a clear example of this case. However, such increasingly violent interactions could trigger an armed conflict, which would potentially draw in relatively unrelated, yet more powerful nations, such as the United States, through its military commitments to the Philippines.

The escalated conflict in the South China Sea has resulted in the U.S. and Japan strengthening their bilateral defense treaty, further showcased at the Shangri-La Dialogue this May when Secretary Hagel publicly supported Japan’s offer to have a greater role in regional security. This growing alliance between the U.S. and Japan will have a considerable impact on how South Korea will navigate these complex waters.

Historically, the U.S has been an important contributor to South Korean military defenses, while post-colonial resentment against Japan has kept South Korea from positively moving forward in ROK-Japan relations. Should China reach out to South Korea for support in the event of escalated SCS violence, Seoul’s response would have a direct impact on US-ROK relations and possibly sour a solid longstanding alliance with Washington, with a worst-case scenario resulting in U.S. troops withdrawing from Korea. South Korea might not be quick to join forces with the U.S. because of the potential for ruining relations with China and Washington’s close ties with Japan. That South Koreans are still sensitive when it comes to relations with Japan is an understatement; ROK-Japan relations have recently taken a frostier undertone, in part due to Prime Minister Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last December.

However, despite reservations South Korea may have about joining hands with Japan on this issue, Seoul may side with the international community, rather than with China. Seoul is seeking to forge stronger ties with Beijing, not only in trade relations but also concerning North Korea. Nevertheless, China’s efforts to increase its geopolitical influence has left South Korea wary of Beijing’s intentions to truly cooperate with its neighboring countries. This past December South Korea expanded its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in direct response to Beijing announcing an ADIZ, which “coincidentally” overlapped with Korean airspace.

In addition to South Korea’s intolerance for China’s ‘bullying,’ a recent donation of a 1,200-ton corvette warship to the Philippines is a quiet indicator of where Seoul stands, particularly since Vietnam and the Philippines are the two main countries that have been clashing with China concerning these territories. Last October, Seoul signed a memorandum of understanding with Manila expanding defense cooperation between the two nations. This was quickly followed by a $420 million contract in March to export 12 FA-50 fighter jets to the Philippines. With China becoming increasingly aggressive in the SCS, the expanded defense deals between South Korea and the Philippines points towards Seoul’s implicit support to Manila in its maritime struggle against China.

While Seoul may not currently approve of China’s actions, to publicly state as much would have adverse consequences toward the ROK-China relation. However, the repercussions for China, if it were to proceed with any potential violent action, would most likely be international condemnation with possible sanctions or armed retaliation. Indeed, this June at the G7 summit, world leaders released a statement opposing “any unilateral attempts” to assert claims in the East China and South China Seas. Consequently, in the event of a violent escalation, more will be at stake for Beijing should the country press further with its aggression in the region.

Last month, during a one-day visit to Japan, President Aquino of the Philippines expressed his country’s support for Japan’s proposal to revise its pacifist constitution to defend its allies against an increasingly aggressive China. With China’s premier, Xi Jinping, set to visit South Korea in the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see if either country brings up the South China Sea dispute. For now, with its military commitment to the Philippines and reliance upon the U.S. for its defense efforts, South Korea has indicated that it is in harmony, however slight, with the current voice of the international community when it comes to the dispute in the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, until an escalated violent conflict breaks out in the region, in an effort to maintain balance between the varying regional nations’ interests, South Korea for the foreseeable future will work to maintain its neutrality on this issue.