With regard to the renewed controversy over Ieodo in the East China Sea, both Korea and China share the position that it is not a matter of territorial dispute. President Lee Myung-bak made this point clear during a roundtable with newspaper and broadcaster editors Monday. In Beijing, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said on the same day that neither China nor Korea regards Ieodo, which Chinese call Suyan Rock, as part of their territory, hence there is no territorial dispute.
President Lee was asked to comment on the recent claim by the head of China’s State Oceanic Administration that China’s maritime jurisdiction, to be exercised through routine patrols, covers Ieodo, internationally known as Socotra Rock. Lee said that Ieodo is located where the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the two countries overlap and that the reef would “naturally belong to Korea when the overlapped part has been adjusted.”
His optimism is of course based on the geographical fact that Ieodo, a large rock formation submerged four to five meters under the water, is much closer to Korea (149 kilometers to Marado) than to China (287 km to its nearest inhabited island). And no nation can claim territorial rights to a submerged reef according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
However, matters are not as simple as President Lee seems to believe. China’s objections are focused on the Ocean Research Station Korea built on Ieodo in 2003. The timing of the Chinese official’s mentioning of Ieodo “jurisdiction” leads us to suspect that Beijing might be looking at the disturbances at the construction site of a naval base on the southern coast of Jeju Island. Internal disarray here could have encouraged the Chinese to mount pressure on the maritime issue.
Korea and China have been in protracted negotiations on the delimitation of their EEZs in the South China Sea since 1996. In that year, Korea, China and Japan joined the U.N. convention on the maritime law and the three neighboring nations also began working on fisheries agreements between them. The Korea-China fisheries pact took effect in 2001 on temporarily drawn EEZ lines. In the meantime, the Seoul government pushed the establishment of the Ocean Research Station on Ieodo for the complex purpose of meteorological, fisheries and oceanological observation.
China has not recognized the observatory project and incessantly called for its suspension on the grounds that the EEZ delimitation had not been finalized. Yet, Korea carried it out, as the law of the sea allows the construction of artificial islands, installations and structures on the continental shelf of the coastal state as well as in the exclusive economic zone. (Articles 60 and 80)
We are not totally denying China’s cause for objecting the operation of the Ieodo facility but its claim of jurisdiction with warnings of air and surface patrols in the area is absolutely unacceptable. The U.N. law of the sea provides the coastal state with exclusive jurisdiction over artificial islands, installations and structures a state establishes in its EEZ or continental shelf, but the law prescribes that such facilities do not possess the status of islands or affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the EEZ or the continental shelf.
As Lee clarified, Korea does not regard Ieodo as a part of its territory. Korea is more than willing to share scientific data obtained through the operation of the Ieodo facility with China and other neighboring states. Through the past two decades since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations, Korea and China, which were once war adversaries, have developed their economic ties exceptionally rapidly to what is now determined as “strategic partnership.” Ieodo can be a symbol of neighborly cooperation rather than a cause for territorial contention.
Some Koreans can be unnecessarily sensitive about the Chinese moves concerning Ieodo as the Oceanic Administration chief’s assertion came while Seoul was pressing Beijing to stop deporting refugees back to North Korea, where they face certain persecution. But it is hard to imagine that the two issues are connected. We expect that Chinese leaders will exhibit greater flexibility with a broad vision of regional peace and stability as the nation continues its peaceful rise in the global community.