Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter issued a strong warning on China’s aggressive advances in the South China Sea on June 4 at the ongoing Asia Security Summit in Singapore. With the confrontation between the U.S. and China becoming more pronounced, the ROK, which has close relations with both countries, is in distress. While the Southeast Asian countries welcome the U.S.’s involvement, some are also concerned about the heightening tension.
The ROK has so far adopted the strategy of maintaining good relations with both the U.S. and China for the sake of resolving the North Korea issues. The speech by Minister of National Defense Han Minkoo, which came after Carter’s speech, reflected the fact that this strategy is becoming untenable with the increasing U.S.-China rivalry.
Han warned that North Korea’s development of nuclear arms will “render mankind’s dream to realize a world without nuclear weapons impossible to achieve.” He called for cooperation in imposing sanctions on North Korea.
On the other hand, he simply reiterated the general principles in the ROK’s policy on the South China Sea issues, such as “freedom of navigation” and “peaceful settlement,” refraining from citing China by name. He also declared that the ROK will not participate in the U.S.-led monitoring and surveillance operations in that sea area. He reaffirmed that “the ROK is making efforts to maintain good relations with China.”
However, with North Korea’s threat becoming increasingly serious, the situation is such that the ROK’s only option is to rely more heavily on its alliance with the U.S.
Han stated that U.S. Forces Korea’s deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system is “very useful militarily.” However, China is opposed to such missile defense systems. The ROK is torn between the U.S. and China.
Vietnamese Deputy Minister of National Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh told Asahi Shimbun on June 4 that “diplomatic or legal solutions are established methods of peaceful settlement,” supporting the position in Carter’s speech.
However, Nguyen had also met with Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Joint Staff, on June 3, telling him that as neighbors, Vietnam and China “should both make efforts to overcome differences,” indicating his desire to avoid confrontation.
Even a senior official of the Department of National Defense of the Philippines, which had filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China to seek a ruling [on the South China Sea issue] based on international law, voiced concern about excessive antagonism between the U.S. and China, saying: “We are concerned about the U.S.-China confrontation deviating from the South China Sea issue” because it will be more difficult to engage in legal discussions if China becomes emotional.
While the ASEAN nations all agree on seeking a peaceful solution, Singapore, Laos, and a number of countries economically dependent on China are eager to avoid confrontation. (Slightly abridged)