North East Asia-Geopolitics, Arms Race and Jeju Naval Base in the Middle

Wook-sik Cheong

How can North East Asia best be defined geopolitically? Geographically one can say North East Asia includes North Korea, South Korea, Japan, all of territorial China and a part of the Russian territory. The de facto state of Taiwan occupies a very strategic and important place geopolitically. Although geographically not located in the region one cannot exclude the United States, a country that exercises the greatest influence and the most powerful state actor geopolitically in the region.

The Korean peninsula occupies a particularly important place geopolitically in North East Asia. Over the past centuries there has been a series of wars including the Imjin War (the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592) and the Manchu War of 1636, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 towards the latter period of the Choson Dynasty, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, and the colonization of the Korean peninsula by Japan followed by the division of the peninsula, the Korean War and subsequent armistice. Geopolitically, the Korean peninsula has increasingly become a highly sensitive region. If maritime powers such as Japan and the United States continue to expand, territorial powers such as China and Russia will seek to use the Korean peninsula as a buffer zone to check this expansion. On the other hand if territorial powers continue their expansion then Japan and the United States would be very wary of the threat of territorial powers using the peninsula to exert force against Japan.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this geopolitical scenario is the tragic consequence of the division of the peninsula and the ensuing war and truce. The ongoing tragedy continues to be played out with no perceivable end in sight.

Geopolitical sensitivity has triggered growing militarization which in turn has created the vicious cycle of igniting further geopolitical tensions. This militarization manifests itself in two ways. One is the increase in military spending by all state actors in the region. The military budgets of all parties to the 6 Party Talks which include North and South Korea, USA, China, Russia and Japan comprise 70% of the world’s total military spending. Secondly are the alliances. The United States seeks to strengthen its separate alliances, the ROK-US alliance and its USA-Japan alliance while seeking to forge a ROK-Japan military relationship in order to build a triangular alliance. To counter this China and Russia have entered into a de facto alliance themselves.

To make matters worse is the construction of the Jeju naval base. The naval base is due for completion at the end of 2015.

The South Korean navy says that the naval base will serve as a homeport for its strategic maneuver fleet. The United States has stated that the base will serve as its port of call. The Island was designated a ‘peace island’ by the state and despite opposition and serious concerns raised by Gangjeong villagers, considerable numbers of citizens and International civil society the state has proceeded with its plan to militarize the island of Jeju.

What needs to be considered here is the fact that the naval base when complete and comes into operation will only serve to increase geopolitical tensions and not lessen them. In terms of the ROK-US alliance Jeju may provide a ‘strategic location’ but from China’s vantage point it can only be viewed as a ‘strategic threat’. The Jeju sea occupy the heartbeat of Chinese political and economic life and is key to its national security as its location represent the gateway to the Yellow Sea. In addition China and Japan are engaged in a territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku Islands to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese. The Taiwan Strait serves as an intermediate base that can restrain China’s North Sea Fleet and the East Sea Fleet.

In this context the location of the Jeju Naval Base could carry the potential risk of a competitive collision between the United States and China. China is seeking to prevent the United States and its allies from intervening or projecting power on its coastline, within the first island chain which stretches from Kuril Islands and Japan through Okinawa and Taiwan to the Philippines and onward to the Strait of Malacca. China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial: A2/AD strategy is to be viewed in this context. As China seeks to prevent the United States and its allies from projecting power within this first island chain they also hope to extend this line of defense by connecting the territories of Ogasawara, Guam, Saipan and Papua New Guinea and create a ‘second line of defense’.

However, China’s strategy coupled with the rebalancing of the United States military strategy in the region has dangerously placed the two powers on a collision course. The United States have prioritized the Asia Pacific region and have decided to concentrate 60% of its naval power there. China’s insistence on its first island chain line of defense is being breached by an increase in US base expansion and increasing numbers of ports of call. In countries of Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines etc. the United States have either negotiated new agreements or revived existing agreements sharply increasing its number of bases. The X-band radar has been deployed to southern Kyoto and despite strong opposition from residents in Okinawa the base construction at Henoko is being enforced. The strategy for Guam is continued base expansion.

The problem lies in the fact that the Jeju Naval Base is akin to oil being poured on the flames of the United States-Chinese hegemonic rivalry. Firstly, the Jeju Naval Base happens to be located within its first line of defense which represents the entry and exit points into the heart China’s area of influence and the gateway to the core of its naval strategy. Despite being fully cognizant of this the United States has said it will utilize the Jeju Naval Base as a port of call. Together with the Pyeongtaek US base (Camp Humphreys), the Osan Air base, Kunsan Air Force Base, the Jeju Naval Base represents another card it holds in which it can use to keep China in check.

I am not alone in pointing this out. Commander David J. Suchyta of the US Navy states the following in his 2013 strategy research project ‘Jeju Naval Base: Strategic Implications for Northeast Asia’:

“The ‘Jeju Naval Base’ could also support Japan in a conflict with China over the Senkaku Islands. Together, the Yellow and East China Seas form approximately 70% of China’s eastern seaboard. During a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Jeju-based U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft could easily intercept North Sea Fleet units heading south and harass the flank of the East Sea Fleet”

Suchyta in his analysis makes the following assertion that “Jeju Naval Base could offer great utility to the U.S’ and “China on the other hand is much more likely to view Jeju as a threat”. He states that it’s in the United States best interest to remain quiet about the naval base lest it causes China to overreact. “If mishandled, (one can derive from this the stated public intention of the United States to use the base) the base could provoke China to upgrade its strategic deterrent, sparking a regional arms race.”

However, the silence was soon shattered when Rear Admiral Lisa Franchetti, commander of the US Naval Forces Korea from Sept. 2013 until June 2015 said at a group interview following a change of command ceremony on August 5th that “the U.S Navy 7th Fleet really likes to send ships to port visit here in South Korea and any port we are able to bring our ships to, we will take advantage of that for great (navigation) liberty and great training”.

I have been convinced for a long time that with naval base construction been pushed through; rather it being perceived as a strategic asset for the Republic of Korea the base would instead represent a major burden. However the South Korean government and conservative media have all along rejected claims that suggest the base is a threat to China and have stated that there is ‘no evidence’ or grounds for concern that the base could undermine ROK-China relations and threaten peace and security in East Asia. Commander Suchyta from his report would seem to concur with the above claims. All along many people have expressed concerns about the United Sates having access to and utility of the port upon completion. Outgoing Rear Admiral Lisa Franchetti has recently publicly revealed the desire of the United States to utilize the naval base as a port of call. Sadly, it seems rather late to justify opposition to the base at this stage.

Translation: Patrick Cunningham