The South Korean government has stated that it will not oppose Japan’s plan to deploy Aegis equipped destroyers to the Yellow Sea to detect and monitor North Korean missile launches because it believes that the goals of such a deployment would dovetail with South Korea’s own national-security interests.
According to the Chosun Ilbo, a senior official from the South Korean president’s office stated that South Korea will not oppose a potential Japanese deployment to the Yellow Sea because “guaranteeing navigational freedom on the high seas coincides with Seoul’s security interests.”
Such a deployment would raise concerns in the three countries that border the Yellow Sea — North Korea, South Korea and China.
North Korea has condemned it as part of an American plot for global domination. South Korea’s government has voiced no opposition but the public debate continues. China has yet to make an official response publicly.
Controversy arises over whether South Korea and/or China should oppose this Japanese deployment and for what reasons — national symbolism, geostrategic maneuvering, continued historical grievances, other reasons or some combination thereof.
A Japanese deployment may be the start of permanently increased naval activities in the Yellow Sea as the region grows in importance, as bordering states build up their navies and as other powers (such as the United States) pursue their interests in the area.
Put in the wider geostrategic context, a Japanese deployment to what Koreans call their West Sea and what China views as the maritime doorstep to its capital raises concerns in both Seoul and Pyongyang over what it means and how they should respond in turn.
Seoul admits that one reason for not opposing the deployment is because Tokyo has more ships, so its monitoring activities may actually help Seoul keep better track of Pyongyang’s provocative actions. This is an implicit acknowledgment that Seoul’s military rebalancing still has some way to go — plans to construct a naval base on the south coast are stalled at present.
Over the long-term however, one can expect to see South Korea act on its realization of the growing importance of naval power and build a more robust force at sea.
For China, having Japanese warships in the Yellow Sea is a further encroachment upon what it regards as its vital waters. Beijing protested vigorously in 2011 when the United States ordered the USS George Washington carrier strike group to the Yellow Sea for exercises with South Korea. China is unlikely to react to a Japanese deployment in a more favorable manner. Its naval modernization is well documented and it would be neither peculiar nor unexpected for China’s navy to make its presence felt in the Yellow Sea over the mid and long-term.
As each of the three countries’ naval modernization programs continue, a Japanese deployment to the area, for whatever reason, may be the first of more instances in which China, Japan and South Korea engage in local, naval muscle flexing. Add to this North Korea’s periodic provocations, the presence of other countries in the region and the Yellow Sea will see its strategic importance grow and naval operational activities conducted within its boundaries multiply.
Wikistrat Bottom Lines
Japanese deployment to the Yellow Sea may add pressure to the overall multilateral effort to pressure China to take a firmer stance with North Korea, as Pyongyang is the stated reason for Japan’s mooted Aegis destroyer deployment.
South Korea and Japan may cement their bilateral military to military relationship, allowing for more intensive and more frequent cooperation on a range of issues, ranging from North Korea to the American alliance.
South Korea may receive a greater impetus to boost its naval power and be able to credibly and consistently project power into waters it views as vital to its national security. China may receive a further boost to its naval modernization program.
Japanese actions risk provoking a backlash, not only from China but from South Korea as well. The sense of historical grievance remains acute in many circles and the symbolism of a Japanese warship in the Yellow Sea may stir nationalist sentiment that takes on a decidedly anti-Japanese tone.
A budding arms race could result in a regional, full-blown security dilemma, precisely because of the opportunities noted above: South Korea may receive a greater impetus to boost its naval power and be able to credibly and consistently project power into waters it views as vital to its national security.
North Korea may feel sufficiently threatened to take even more provocative actions, leading to increased American, Japanese or South Korean activity in and over the Yellow Sea, raising regional tensions again and inviting strong Chinese protests and possible military flexing for show.
If the North Korean missile threat vanished, would Japan halt its naval deployments?
If the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were to be dissolved, creating a China-unified Korea border, how would the geostrategic dynamic evolve in a sea viewed as vital by both countries?
Brian Chao and Lusi Zheng contributed to this analysis.