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Dispatch: South Korea Plans Naval Bases Amid Maritime Tensions

4 MINS READOct 3, 2011 | 19:02 GMT
Vice President of Strategic Intelligence Rodger Baker discusses the potential effects of two planned South Korean naval bases on tensions in the South China Sea.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

We have seen a lot of activity in the South China Sea with questions of Chinese expansionism, responses by other countries and tensions building that region. We have seen the Japanese, the Indians, the Vietnamese getting strongly involved. But it is not just in the South China Sea that we are seeing maritime activity in the Asia-Pacific. The South Koreans right now are looking at two new projects— a new naval base on Ulleung island, just west of the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima island, and a new base on the large southern island of Jeju, which would give the South Korean navy much more rapid and greater access to the South China Sea and beyond. The two bases in some ways are very different. The base on Ulleung-do is focused on rapid reaction to get South Korean naval vessels to the disputed Dokdo islets. This is a dispute between Japan and South Korea that has been going on for quite a while but ultimately is not a very strategic dispute, it is more of a public relations issue. The Jeju base, however, would be a very large facility. This is a facility that would be able to host Aegis destroyers, it would be able to host aircraft carriers. This really is where we see the major expansion potentially taking place for the South Korean navy. We have been watching an evolution in South Korean military development for the past decade or so. One of the things in particular is the decision by the South Koreans to create, if not an independent military force that is non-reliant upon the U.S., at least a force that is strong, that is capable and that focuses on issues of importance to the Korean strategic interest rather than necessarily just retaining themselves as a force designed to back up or support U.S. interests in the region and the U.S. protection of South Korea from North Korea. The naval expansions we have seen in South Korea have been a big part of this. South Korea is a major trading nation. South Korea is about twelfth largest economy in the world. A lot of that is based on trade, a lot of that is based on access to resources, access to markets, and therefore ultimately South Korea feels somewhat vulnerable in its supply lines and in finding a way to ensure that it has the ability to secure its resource acquisitions and its overseas operations. The South Koreans are certainly not carrying out this expansion in isolation. They do have an eye on what is going on around them. They have noticed the big changes in the Chinese navy and the more assertive nature of Chinese maritime security interests. They have watched the Japanese who very quietly have been developing a pace within the region and remain, aside from the United States, probably the single strongest navy in the Asia-Pacific region. And they are looking in general at an area that is growing more tense, is growing somewhat more contested and that has become a lot more active both for exploration of potential undersea resources but also in the sense of nationalistic defense of claims territories. In the short term, certainly on the issue of the base on Ulleung Island, this has the potential to continue to rankle relations with Japan. But those are largely manageable relations, it is really the naval base in Jeju that seems to be the most significant. This puts the South Korean navy probably more active within the South China Sea, maybe even onto the Indian Ocean as they look particularly at the energy supply lines. But it also puts them in a place where in the South China Sea, which is ultimately a very small place, a very cramped place, it is an area that we are seeing a lot of maritime activity, we are seeing a lot of ships in the area, we are seeing a lot of aircraft in the area, we are seeing a lot of countries that are really trying to push their interest or their claims of ownership. And having this much activity in that area really leaves it open to not only the possibility but perhaps the likelihood of some unintentional conflicts in the not-too-distant future.

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