S. Korea, China make moves amid tensions

Seoul expands airspace; Beijing in disputed waters

SEOUL—South Korea on Sunday declared an expanded air defense zone that overlaps with one announced by China and covers a submerged rock disputed by the two countries—as tensions rise over competing territorial claims.

The defense ministry said its new zone, which will take effect on Dec. 15, would cover Ieodo, a rock in waters off its south coast which China calls Suyan.

On patrol. Inset at top left shows South Korean TA-50 jets, while above and at top right are shown a South Korean Navy patrol aircraft and a South Korean Aegis ship on patrol near Leodo Ocean Research Station. AFP
The airspace above the Seoul-controlled rock— long a source of tension between South Korea and China—is also covered by Chinese and Japanese air defense zones.

South Korea made its announcement even as Three Chinese ships entered disputed waters off Tokyo-controlled islands in the East China Sea on Sunday, the Japanese Coast Guard said, the first such incident since Beijing announced an air defense zone in the area last month.

The vessels entered the 12-nautical-mile waters around 9 am (0000 GMT) off o ne of the Senkaku islaneds, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus, the Japan Coast Guard said. They left the area shortly after noon.

Japan’s top defense official on Saturday warned that China’s plan to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone in the West Philippine Sea would trigger more tension in the region.

Moments after meeting with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in Camp Aguinaldo, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera expressed concern that an ADIZ over the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea would create tension similar to the tensions now being felt between China and Japan in the East China Sea.

“If a new ADIZ will be set up in the South China Sea, I think the government of Japan needs to express the same concern that we had over at the East China Sea,” Onodera said.

China heightened tensions last month when it unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, in which foreign planes are supposed to file flight plans with Beijing.

The zone—which encompasses some areas currently controlled by South Korea or Japan—has drawn intense protests from the two neighbors and objections from key allies such as the United States.

“We will coordinate with related countries to fend off accidental military confrontations and to ensure the safety of airplanes,” said South Korean defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok.

“The new air defense zone is in line with international aviation rules and protocols,” he said.

Kim said Seoul had notified its neighbors and related nations in advance about its new air zone—the first revision to its air defense area for 62 years.

The new zone was expanded by about 66,480 square kilometers—or about two thirds of the size of the country—in waters off its south coast, the defense ministry said.

There was no immediate comment from China or Japan on the South Korean move.

US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki confirmed that Seoul had consulted with Washington earlier, saying US officials “appreciate” the South’s “efforts to pursue this action in a” by notifying its neighbors in advance.

Tension has been high since the air zone declaration by China, which neighbors see as a push to assert its growing military might and territorial claims.

In addition to Ieodo China’s ADIZ covers disputed Tokyo-controlled islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, that have been at the center of a simmering territorial row.

Both Tokyo and Seoul have rejected Beijing’s demand that all aircraft traversing the Chinese zone file flight plans and ID details.

The US flew two US B-52 bombers through the area without complying, followed by similar moves by Japan and South Korea whose planes also entered the zone without notifying China.

The latest tension over the air zone overshadowed the visit last week by US Vice President Joe Biden to the three nations.

Biden warned China against raising tension in the region, saying regional peace and stability were in its interests.

Biden, during talks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, also expressed “understanding” for Seoul’s approach including the revision of its air zone, according to a senior US official.

Boo Hyung-wook, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, said the latest dispute stemmed from China’s desire to strengthen its claim over the Senkakus by extending its air defense zone.

“Since South Korea was so close to Japan, it was unavoidable [for China] to let some of its air zone overlap with Korea, which has led to all this trouble with Seoul,” Boo said.

“It’s really time for the three neighbors to sit together to avoid the worst-case scenario,” he said. But he added it was “highly unlikely” that the latest row would lead to an actual military clash.

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