The cozy facade of Beijing-Seoul relations has unraveled in recent weeks amid territorial disputes and maritime law enforcement between the two nations.
China has sought to cultivate warmer ties with South Korea by exploiting shared historical issues against Japan. The ploy is aimed at splitting the U.S.-led geopolitical alliance in the western Pacific.
With South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the helm in Seoul, that strategy seemed to be succeeding as Beijing and Seoul revved up anti-Japan rhetoric in unison — despite pleas from Washington and Tokyo for Seoul to transcend parochial issues and re-seal South Korea-Japan unity in fending off common security threats by North Korea and China.
Last week’s boisterous Chinese-Russian joint naval drill in the northern East China Sea, however, served as a wake-up call for the South Koreans and ignited a powder keg of bad feelings in South Korea toward China.
The South Korean government was outraged by the drill, and summoned the Chinese defense attach in Seoul on May 20 to lodge a protest.
At issue is the site of the naval drill, less than 30 miles from South Korea’s Ieodo, also known as Socotra Rock, in the Yellow Sea. The submerged rock also is claimed by the Chinese, who call it Suyan Rock. South Korea’s government said China did not bother to provide Seoul with prior notice of the drill.
SEE ALSO: China: Poisonous smog is a military asset, if you think about it
In November, the two countries disagreed vehemently when China unilaterally announced its East China Sea air defense identification zone, which covers Ieodo. Subsequently, Seoul expanded its air defense identification zone, which encompasses Ieodo and overlaps China’s zone by an area covering 150 miles by 100 miles.
Additionally, South Korea appeared upset with China’s focus on Tokyo’s sensitivities over the drill while ignoring Seoul’s.
China had pushed the Russians to hold the naval drill closer to the disputed Senkakus in an effort to intimidate Japan. But Moscow refused to play Beijing’s game and rejected China’s proposed site. China and Russia then agreed to a site near Ieodo.
Russia also refused Chinese demands for a bilingual communication system for the exercises and insisted on using Russian — not Chinese — as the only language for the entire naval maneuvers that ended this week.
South Korea apparently was upset that the drill site was more than 230 miles from the Senkakus but less than 30 miles from Ieodo.
To show its displeasure, South Korea’s navy dispatched its 4,500-ton KDX-II class advanced destroyer, and other naval and air assets to waters near Ieodo to monitor the Chinese-Russian naval exercise.
What’s more, the Chinese further antagonized the South Koreans by dispatching a large fleet of fishing boats to illegally fish in South Korean waters without showing any concern for Seoul’s sensitivities. The move took advantage of Ms. Park’s decision in the aftermath of the sinking of a ferry transport to dismantle the South Korean Coast Guard — the only maritime law enforcement force capable of preventing rampant illegal Chinese fishing in South Korean waters.
The South Korean press has reported that within just one week of the coast guard’s dismantlement, more than 1,100 Chinese fishing vessels blatantly crossed the maritime boundary, mostly at night, and depleted fish and crabs in a large area of South Korea’s declared exclusive economic zone.
On May 23, many South Koreans cheered when a local court sentenced four Chinese fishermen who were captured 1 1/2 years ago for an illegal fishing operations and a violent attack on South Korean maritime police. The fishermen received jail terms of one to three years and fines, and their boats were confiscated.
For Beijing-Seoul relations, the recent damage might be too severe to be repaired soon. South Korea may soon join the long list of China’s regional adversaries — with or without America’s prompting.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_Miles.