August 21, 2023
MANILA – South Korea has added its voice to the growing number of nations expressing support for the 2016 arbitral award that invalidated Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea, as it joined the United States and Japan in condemning China for its “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the disputed waters and urging it to adhere to the ruling.
An analyst called Seoul’s move a marked departure from its passive stand on Indo-Pacific issues and its intention to be more vocal as a “responsible stakeholder” in the region while seeking greater defense cooperation with the Philippines.
The trilateral statement was issued at the historic summit called by US President Joe Biden with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at Camp David in Maryland on Friday (US time).
“Regarding the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea, we strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific,” they said in a statement, considered their strongest joint condemnation yet of Beijing’s aggression in the area.
At the same time, the three leaders reiterated their commitment to international law, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
“The July 2016 award in the South China Sea arbitration sets out the legal basis for the peaceful resolution of maritime conflicts between the parties to that proceeding,” they said.
Tensions in the South China Sea have flared between the Philippines and China over the BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as Manila’s military outpost in the West Philippine Sea. On Aug. 5, China Coast Guard ships used water cannons against Filipino ships on a resupply mission to the rusting World War II vessel on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
The incident drew condemnation from many countries, with the South Korean Embassy in Manila expressing for the first time its “concern” over “actions that raise tensions” in the disputed area.
“The Embassy reaffirms its support for peace, stability and rules-based order in the South China Sea, as an important international sea lane of communications, and for the freedom of navigation and overflight based on the principles of international law, including Unclos,” it said in a statement on Aug. 10.
Shift in foreign policy
Wongi Choe, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said the embassy’s statement and the “even stronger language” at Camp David was important because it meant that “Seoul has finally broken its long-held silence on the South China Sea issues, and started to speak out.”
“Since taking office, President Yoon has repeatedly stated that he firmly opposes any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo against the international law, whether it is Ukraine, South China Sea or Taiwan for that matter, and his strong stance on this principle set the general direction and tone of his government policy,” he added.
Last year, Yoon unveiled South Korea’s first Indo-Pacific strategy, embracing the country’s new regional role as a “global pivotal state,” which marked a departure from the cautious foreign policy of previous administrations.
The strategy emphasized Seoul’s strong support for securing freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, as well as its intent to strengthen cooperation on maritime security in the region.
“This is a major departure from Seoul’s passive posture on regional issues of peace and stability in the past including Seoul’s stance on South China Sea. The idea behind this shift is that given the dire and worsening strategic environment in the region, as a responsible stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region, Seoul cannot afford to keep punching under the belt anymore and shying away from shaping regional peace and stability like it did in the past,” Choe said.
According to him, he expects South Korea to add its voice “more frequently in the future when China violates the rules” and greater naval and coast guard cooperation, defense industry cooperation and joint exercises with the Philippines in the future.
Over the years, the Philippines and South Korea have been further expanding their defense partnership which was cemented when Manila deployed troops to support Seoul during the Korean War in the 1950s. South Korea is also one of the country’s major sources of defense equipment.
Last year, Seoul sent 120 Marine troops for the first time to the “Kamandag” exercise in Luzon, which also involved over 3,000 personnel from the Philippines, United States and Japan.
The Biden administration held the Camp David summit with South Korea and Japan, its main allies in Asia, in a bid to project unity in the face of China’s growing power and nuclear threats from North Korea.
Aside from agreeing to deepen military and economic ties, the three leaders committed to consult promptly with each other during crises and to coordinate responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats affecting common interests.
They also agreed to hold trilateral military training exercises and summits annually and to share real-time information on North Korean missile launches by the end of 2023.
The language on China stood out as stronger than expected, and is likely to provoke a response from Beijing, a vital trading partner for both South Korea and Japan.
The commitments at Biden’s first Camp David summit for foreign leaders represent a significant move for Seoul and Tokyo, which have a long history of mutual acrimony and distrust.
Biden praised both leaders for their political courage in pursuing a rapprochement. He said they understood the world was “at an inflection point, where we’re called to lead in new ways, to work together, to stand together.”