Home' Defence Review Asia : DRA Sept-Oct 2013 Contents 34 DefenceReviewAsia | SEPT-OCT 2013
$256.3 billion last year. China is Seoul's largest
trading partner and takes 25% of its exports.
China and South Korea have maintained relatively
quiet relations - though there have been flare-ups.
These include episodes of Chinese illegal fishing
and the murder of a coast guard in 2011, and
disputes over the submerged Socotra Rock in the
Yellow Sea. South Korea is also concerned over
China's growing military might and in particular its
assertiveness in regional seas.
Sino-Japanese relations are spiralling downwards.
A collision between two Japan Coast Guard patrol
boats and a Chinese fishing trawler on 7 September
2010 sparked nationalistic fervour across China,
but tensions spiked higher last September when
Japan's former prime minister nationalised three
Senkaku islets. Since then, vessels and aircraft
from both sides have shadowed each other in a
dangerous cat-and-mouse game.
Japan's codified criticism of China's growing
military juggernaut appears in its Defence White
Paper released on 9 July. The document accused
China of "rapidly expanding and intensifying its
maritime activities...engaging in dangerous acts
that could give rise to an emergency situation". One
example is the assertion that Chinese frigates twice
locked their fire control radars onto a Japanese
helicopter and destroyer in January.
Analysts say the White Paper is preparing the
way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to take a more
muscular approach against China. He is creating an
amphibious force to protect Japan's offshore island
chain and pushing for a revision of Japan's tightly
pacifist constitution. On 30 August, the Ministry of
Defence submitted its budget request for $48.97
billion, a 3% increase and the largest in 22 years.
Clearly, Japan does not intend to be intimidated by
However, Japan's White Paper provoked swift
criticism from both China and South Korea. Both,
who are former victims of Japanese militarism, are
acutely concerned by a more assertive Tokyo. There
is certainly brewing nationalist sentiment in Japan. In
August, on a visit to Japan, the author witnessed a
major rally by an ultranationalist group near the US
Navy base at Yokosuka near Tokyo. These right-wing
protestors, wearing uniforms and bearing rising-
sun flags reminiscent of the imperialist era, drew
hundreds of riot police.
Japan also annoyed South Korea with the White
Paper's reassertion that the Liancourt Rocks
(Takeshima in Japanese, Dokdo in Korean) belong
to Tokyo. Seoul "sternly" urged Japan to remove
reference to its claim.
USA -- JILTED?
China's rise puts South Korea in something of
a strategic dilemma with regard to the USA.
Traditionally, the USA has been a close ally and
some 28,500 American servicemen of US Forces
Korea (USFK) are stationed in the country. The
support of Washington has been vital to the
nation's stability and stunning economic success.
Furthermore, the situation is complicated by
discord in Japan-ROK relations, even though both
are individually strong allies of the USA. The USA
remains firmly committed to its allies, even more so
as it enacts its much-publicised "pivot" to the Asia-
Pacific region. Incidentally, US Naval Forces Korea
is moving its headquarters from Seoul to Pusan.
Rear Admiral William McQuilkin broke ground on
the new facility in Pusan on 29 August. The phased
relocation, due for completion in 2015, will place
ROK and US Navy leaders side by side.
However, trade with China is now eclipsing
Seoul's former reliance on the USA, and the country
must maintain harmonious relationships with the
two strategic rivals. The new administration will
doubtlessly be emphasising that the basis of the
ROK-US alliance must be aimed against North
Korea and not against China.
Of interest, South Korea has skirted US weapons
that could tie it into a regional alliance. A prime
example is South Korea's disinclination to join a
US-led regional ballistic-missile defence network.
Another interesting case is the ROK Air Force's F-X
Phase III competition for 60 fighters, in which the
Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE) is heir apparent
after it was the sole contender within the price
If looked at purely from the perspective of a
standoff with North Korea, the air superiority that
the ROKAF already enjoys means it does not make
much difference which fighter is chosen. What is
perhaps more pertinent is South Korea giving mind
to future capabilities against potential adversaries
Japan and China. The former is set to acquire the
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while China is developing
the fifth-generation J-20. Some in South Korea think
a decision for the F-15SE, the 'oldest' of the three
F-X contenders, will harm the ROKAF in future
years. Indeed, as these two regional rivals introduce
modern aircraft, South Korea will lose parity. At
present, Seoul just cannot match the defence
budgets of its two neighbours. Ù
An F-15K Slam Eagle of the ROKAF. The F-15SE, the
winner apparent in a new fighter competition, is based on
this same platform. (Gordon Arthur)
A ROK marine participates in a bilateral exercise with
the US Marine Corps earlier this year at the height of
cross-border tensions. (Gordon Arthur)
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