South Korea

China row on holiday island's navy base

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am


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A dispute over a South Korean naval base being built on an island that is hugely popular among Chinese tourists has brought into sharp focus Seoul's conflicted position between strategic ally Washington and rising economic partner Beijing.

Work on a 490,000-square-metre base on Cheju island, a tourism destination 90 kilometres off South Korea's southwest coast, started in 2006 but has been halted seven times, for a total of 10 months, due to protests.

Demonstrators say the base is part of Washington's anti-China strategy rather than a South Korean strategic bulwark. Last month, Cheju's provincial council announced the result of an official probe that uncovered irregularities in base-planning procedures. On Wednesday, South Korea's Navy responded by calling a press conference.

'Port visits by US Navy ships will only be temporary. They will not be permanently stationed on [Cheju],' Rear Admiral Koo Ok-hyoe said. '[The base] is being built to protect Korean maritime territory.'

Koo said the port, to open in 2014, was for dual civilian-military use. In the former role, it would permit the visits of larger cruise liners than Cheju facilities can currently accommodate.

In the latter role, it would help project power and protect trade-dependent South Korea's maritime lines of communications, while allowing the navy to shift assets between the peninsula's east and west coasts in the event of North Korean naval incursions. It would be too small for US aircraft carriers, he said.

Cheju is well sited to interdict shipping entering or leaving the Yellow Sea, an area Beijing is extremely sensitive to.

According to the navy, 56 per cent of nearby villagers favour the base for economic reasons, but local protesters have been joined by mainland NGOs. Several activists and student demonstrators have been arrested.

'A naval base on [Cheju] is not essential to protect South Korea, but may be used as a US base instead of Okinawa,' said Dr Kim Sung-soo, a Seoul academic, referring to Japan's giant US Marine base, currently being downsized. 'That would damage the security of East Asia, as tension in the region would rise between China and the US.'

The Cheju base debate echoes a wider debate inside South Korea. For centuries, Korea was a vassal state to China, and in 1950 Beijing intervened in the Korean war, rescuing a tottering North Korea. It is now Pyongyang's closest ally.

But as its economy surges, China has become South Korea's top trading partner and investment destination, raising questions as to whether Seoul can indefinitely juggle strategic ties with Washington and economic ties with Beijing.

Security experts insist that Seoul must maintain this balance.

'Moving toward China economically and culturally is fine, but moving toward China strategically means being subservient,' said Dr Kim Byung-ki, a scholar of Korea University's Security Policy Forum. 'The only reason we have an independent country is the security alliance with the US.'

But South Korea's vocal left wing disagrees. And Cheju has traumatic memories.

The island is noted for its extinct volcanoes, beaches, caves and waterfalls, but in 1948-49, before the Korean war, South Korean forces, bolstered by US military advisers, ruthlessly suppressed a left-wing rebellion on the island. An estimated 30,000 islanders died.

Meanwhile, Cheju is undergoing a welcome Chinese invasion.

According to the Cheju Tourism Association in September, the number of Chinese tourists visiting stood at 325,393 thus far this year, up 17.1 per cent from the same period in 2010. A survey by China's Global Times found that Cheju, Hawaii and the Maldives are the top three island destinations for Chinese tourists. With so many Chinese enjoying Korean soap operas and music, Cheju offers visa-free travel to Chinese.