Sunday morning, South Korea announced that it was extending its air defense zone to include a tiny reef off its coast. Now China, Japan, and South Korea’s flight zones overlap for the first time, upping military tensions in a region already rife with them.
Socotra Rock, known as Ieodo in Korea and Suyan Rock in China, is a submerged reef that houses a Korean research station. Both Korea and China claim it as part of their “exclusive economic zones,” (EEZ) a legal term for the maritime region in which the country has special development rights.
South Korea’s expansion of its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) to include Socotra is a direct response to China doing the same. An ADIZ denotes the area in which another country can’t fly its planes safely without identifying themselves, and, in late November, China expanded its zone to include Socotra. At the time, China’s play for Socotra was overshadowed by its move for the Senkaku-Diayou island chain, which Japan also claims. But South Korea’s counter has brought the simmering Socotra dispute to the fore.
After China’s move, South Korea military officials asked China to peacefully remove Socotra from its ADIZ, perhaps in exchange for taking China’s side in its dispute with Japan. But China refused, prompting Sunday’s escalation.
Many Koreans believe Socotra is critically important to their nation’s security. “Ieodo itself has a huge significance,” Koh Choong-suk president of the Ieodo Research Society, said. “Waters near it are part of key shipping routes through which some 90 percent of Korea’s inbound and outbound shipments pass.” Korean control over Socotra also limits China’s maneuvering room in the East China Sea, where the islands it disputes with Japan lie, and the reef is believed to house natural gas and mineral deposits.
The real danger in the overlapping Korean-Chinese ADIZ is accidental war. When another country’s aircraft, civilian or military, fly into a foreign ADIZ, they have to identify themselves or risk being fired on. Japanese planes that fly in the Senkaku-Diayou chain refuse to identify themselves beforehand to Beijing in protest of China’s claim, upping the chance that China might blow them out of the sky. If Korean or Chinese aircraft do the same in Socotra, it’ll increase the risk of a deadly accident. That could very well escalate to war between the Asian powers, a war that could pull in the United States.
“The issue of the air defense identification zone is making the already difficult regional situations even more difficult to deal with,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said after China’s initial ADIZ announcement. “Things can take a dramatic turn for the worse if territorial conflicts and historical issues are merged with nationalism.”
Of course, a war between China and South Korea (perhaps aided by the United States and Japan) would be a catastrophe for all parties. Socotra is important, but not nearly important enough to pay the cost in blood and treasure necessary to wrest it from another party through force — to say nothing of the nuclear risk posed by conflict between an American ally and China.
Under these conditions, accidental war is unlikely. “Historians have demonstrated that most wars initially deemed ‘accidental,” University of Kentucky political scientist Robert Farley writes, “have in actuality resulted from deliberative state policy, even if the circumstances of the war were unplanned.” Accidental wars do happen, but they tend to occur in cases where there is poor communication between the warring nations and a lot to gain from decisive, rapid military action — conditions that do not hold in the Socotra dispute.
Regardless, the conflict over Socotra is yet another complication in the fraught, ever-shifting relations between South Korea, Japan, and China. According to John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University whose research focuses on East Asian politics, relations between China and South Korea haven’t been this close in over 100 years. “The kerfuffle over the overlap between China’s new ADIZ and Korea’s old ADIZ should not distract too much attention from the deeper strategic shift taking shape,” he wrote three days before the Korean announcement. Delury sees as-of-yet improving relations between South Korea and China as part of a broader Chinese strategy to peacefully weaken the American-made alliance system that has set the terms of East Asian politics since the 50s.
South Korea’s initial attempt to deescalate the ADIZ situation through diplomacy fits Delury’s thesis, but China’s refusal to play ball doesn’t. “Now, the [Korean] government has no choice but to stand with the United States, Australia, and Japan in staunch opposition to the ADIZ,” Victor Cha, an expert on the Koreas at Georgetown and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concludes. “Perhaps this was not Seoul’s first choice, but it is the smarter long-term strategic play. Cutting an individual ‘deal’ with China only further isolates the ROK from its allies and sets it up to be dominated by China.”
It’d also be a mistake to think of Korean-Chinese-Japanese relations as being governed solely by the dictates of power politics. There are economic reasons to think they’d avoid conflict; war is bad for business, after all. And don’t discount the power of historical grievances and ideology to shift a nation’s thinking. South Korea and Japan have been at loggerheads recently over another territorial dispute and the legacy of Japan’s colonial conquest of Korea in the early 20th century, tensions China has been cannily exploiting.
Socotra may be an opportunity for the two American allies to make up, but the only durable solution to the long-simmering tensions in the region is some kind of compromise between the three countries and the United States. Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that a formal “code of conduct,” a model pioneered elsewhere in Asia, could calm things down. Until something like that happens, though, expect continued rockiness over Socotra Rock.