China Risks Cooler South Korea Ties With Air Defense Zone

China’s overlap of its new air zone with that of South Korea in the East China Sea has complicated its efforts to forge closer ties with President Park Geun Hye and gives her an incentive to further strengthen relations with the U.S.

Park will tomorrow meet Vice President Joseph Biden, who has called on South Korea and Japan to stand with the U.S. in the face of China’s assertion of its military muscle. Park and her top defense officials were hosting Chinese state councilor Yang Jiechi less than three weeks ago as part of her effort to boost trade and secure China’s help in containing North Korea.

China’s air zone, originally set up to challenge Japanese territorial claims in the East China Sea, extends over an underwater rock on which South Korea has built a research station and heliport. Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said today the government plans to extend South Korea’s own air defense zone over the disputed rock, threatening to escalate tensions in the region.

“The relations between China and South Korea were getting better than ever,” said Lee Ho Chul, a political science professor at Incheon National University. “But China is infringing on South Korea’s national interest as it seeks to expand its own.”

South Korea last week demanded that China redraw the zone to exclude the reef, called Ieodo in Korean and Suyan Rock in Chinese. China rejected the request.

Courting China

Park has courted China since her inauguration in February. She held a summit with President Xi Jinping in June where the two agreed to deepen their strategic partnership. Park delivered a speech in Mandarin during her trip.

The two nations in June extended a won-yuan currency swap worth 360 billion yuan ($59 billion) until 2017 that was due to expire next year. The countries agreed to consider expanding the size of the deal, reflecting the “shared willingness to further cooperate at the financial and monetary front,” the South Korean Finance Ministry said in a statement at the time.

The U.S. remains South Korea’s key strategic ally, serving as the main defense against North Korea and its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Over 28,000 U.S. troops are based in the country, 60 years after the war that sealed the division of the two Koreas. South Korea will take over wartime control of its 640,000 troops from the U.S. in December 2015.

Lockheed Fighters

South Korea’s military is also equipped with U.S. weaponry and the army signaled last month it plans to spend about $8 billion to buy at least 40 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jets. South Korea, the U.S. and U.K. will hold a joint naval exercise Dec. 8-9 in waters to the south of the Korean peninsula, U.S. Forces Korea said today in an e-mailed statement.

“China is much more concerned about South Korea strengthening its alliance with the United States than it is about it shifting toward Japan,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University in Hong Kong. “China to some extent is working to support South Korea to be more independent.”

China’s move to set up an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, was an escalation in its challenge to Japan’s administration of islands in the East China Sea that has pushed tensions to their highest point since Japan bought some of the islands in September 2012. A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing yesterday offered Japan talks on the safety of aircraft in the area, reflecting Chinese efforts to force Japan into discussing a territorial dispute that its leaders have so far refused to acknowledge.

Militant Past

“It is not likely that the Chinese government would retract the gist of ADIZ-related demands, although minor modifications through discussions with the United States and South Korea are possible,” Yoichiro Sato, an international relations professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said in an e-mail. “Agreeing on demarcation with South Korea’s ADIZ would earn China a diplomatic victory vis-a-vis Japan.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is preparing a Japanese national security strategy document for later this month and a draft of the government proposal calls the air zone part of a Chinese effort to “change the status quo by force” in the East China Sea. Japan will “respond calmly and firmly” to such attempts, the government said in a copy of the document obtained by Bloomberg.

Distrustful of Japan

China and South Korea, distrustful of Japan over its militant past, have found common ground in opposing Abe’s efforts to build up his country’s defense forces. Abe is considering reinterpreting the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to allow him to deploy more freely Japan’s defense forces. Officials from the three countries agreed last week though to work toward a free trade agreement by the end of 2014.

Biden’s arrival in Seoul against the backdrop of China’s unilateral move will provide an opportunity to push for rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, two of its key allies in the region, a U.S. administration official told reporters Nov. 27 on condition of anonymity. The official said Biden would make clear that it was in the U.S. interest that the two nations find ways to resolve their differences.

Before leaving Beijing today, Biden said that China’s growing economic and military strength means it “will bear increasing responsibility to contribute positively to peace and security. That means taking steps to reduce the risks of accidental conflict and miscalculation.”

Sex Slaves

Lingering resentment over Japan’s occupation of Korea before and during World War II still taints relations, casting a shadow over the ties that bind East Asia’s second- and third-largest economies. Park has declined to meet with Abe and has demanded the country make a more robust apology over Japan’s use of Korean sex slaves during the occupation before a summit can be held.

While Korea extended its swap agreement with China, it agreed with Japan to end a won-yen currency swap when it expired on July 3. The decision came amid lingering tensions over disputed islets called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.

“Biden will have his hands full exhorting his nation’s two allies in Northeast Asia to cool down and mend fences,” Lee Sung-Yoon, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, said in an e-mail.

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