News analysis

China has wider hopes for Seoul talks, say observers

First-ever formal talks could serve Beijing's geopolitical aims

China hopes the first-ever formal talks with South Korea aimed at resolving a maritime boundary spat would not only remove a rock of contention but also advance geopolitical aims like its territorial claims in the South China Sea, say analysts.

With their ties on an upswing now, the analysts add that both sides may deem it opportune to launch the talks in Seoul next Tuesday to resolve the issue of overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and ownership of a rock in the Yellow Sea known as Socotra, or Ieodo to South Korea and Suyan to China.

Sino-Korean relations expert Yu Yingli said that though bilateral ties have warmed considerably under President Xi Jinping and President Park Geun Hye since late 2012, with a free trade agreement inked recently, the maritime dispute remains a thorn in bilateral ties.

"Issues of national sovereignty are always sensitive. Both sides may deem that it is better to resolve this than to let it become a potential ticking time bomb," Dr Yu of the Shanghai Institute of International Affairs told The Straits Times.

Preparations, in fact, began after Mr Xi visited South Korea in July last year and agreed with Ms Park to launch the formal talks.

US-based intelligence firm Stratfor said in a paper on Dec 9 that Beijing may be willing to make a concession to Seoul so as to "further solidify its South China Sea position".

Sino-Korean relations expert Yu Yingli said that though bilateral ties have warmed considerably under President Xi Jinping and President Park Geun Hye since late 2012, with a free trade agreement inked recently, the maritime dispute remains a thorn in bilateral ties.

"By showing a willingness to compromise with South Korea, China would send a signal to counter-claimants across Asia that it is willing to make deals for mutual benefit," it added.

China faces overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

  • Maritime dispute goes back nearly 20 years

  • The maritime dispute between China and South Korea began in 1996 after they ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and expanded their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to 200 nautical miles from their coastlines.

    The move produced an overlapping area comprising a rock known as Ieodo to South Korea and Suyan to China in the Yellow Sea. It lies 80 nautical miles from the closest South Korean island of Marado and 155 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese island of Sheshan.

    The overlapping area - an EEZ is a sea zone over which a country has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources - has been a source of tension.

    Clashes between Chinese fishing vessels and South Korean coast guard boats take place frequently near the rock. This resulted in fatal incidents in 2011 and last year.

    In 2003, tensions brewed after Seoul built the Ocean Research Station on Ieodo to measure ocean currents and accumulate data for weather forecasting. 

    But China calls its activities on the rock illegal.

    Ties also plummeted after China included the rock in its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) set up in November 2013 over the East China Sea. The move prompted South Korea to expand its own ADIZ a month later to also include the rock.

    Since 1996, China and South Korea have reportedly held 16 meetings but failed to delimit their EEZs due to their differing principles.

    Both sides agreed at a presidential summit in July last year to reopen negotiations this year and held consultations in Shanghai in January to prepare for the negotiations.

Its Foreign Ministry said on Monday that the talks, to be led by Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin and Second Vice-Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul, would reflect its longstanding stance on resolving disputes bilaterally.

It also expressed the hope that both sides can tackle the issue "in an equitable and reasonable way" and "set a good example for the resolution of similar issues among regional countries".

China insists that the South China Sea spats should be resolved bilaterally, but some claimant-states, fearing they would be disadvantaged in a one-on-one setting, want the disputes resolved collectively.

Stratfor also believes that resolving the rock dispute may reduce Seoul's potential for involvement in the South China Sea, "slightly eroding United States power in the region by creating friction within the US-Japan-Korea security alliance".

But analyst Zhu Feng of Nanjing University does not see this as a factor in China's push to resolve its maritime spat with South Korea, given that both presidents had agreed since last year to launch the talks.

He also said it is presumptuous to say China would make concessions on matters involving national sovereignty, adding that "no country would give in easily on such issues".

He said the sensitive nature of the dispute makes it premature and difficult to gauge the knock-on impact on the South China Sea situation.

Regional security expert Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales also pointed out that the differences in the two disputes may limit the knock-on impact China is hoping for.

For instance, he noted that Ieodo is a submerged rock, over which a state cannot claim sovereignty under international law.

In contrast, China claims all the islands within its nine-dash line in the South China Sea and waters adjacent to these islands and also maintains that islands occupied by other claimant-states are Chinese and thus illegally occupied, he added.

"This means that the China-South Korea dispute over territorial delimitation is more straightforward than the South China Sea," he said.

On China's hope of using the talks with Seoul as an example that bilateral negotiations can work, Professor Thayer said such calls will continue to be viewed with scepticism by South-east Asian states .

"Given China's construction of artificial islands and its lurking presence in Malaysian waters, China's call for bilateral relations will fall on deaf ears," he added.

Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey also does not see a direct connection between the two sets of maritime disputes.

"While not straightforward, resolving a dispute between two countries is easier than resolving one that involves six parties, like in the South China Sea," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis China has wider hopes for Seoul talks, say observers'. Subscribe