China may offer concessions to South Korea in upcoming talks on their disputed maritime border.

Beijing wants to expand its relationship with Seoul to disrupt the US-South Korea-Japan alliance structure.

Beijing will use any progress to encourage bilateral negotiations with other maritime disputants.

TENSIONS are still high in the South China Sea, drawing a great deal of regional and international attention. But these Southeast Asian disputes are only part of the broader trend in the Pacific Rim. As China grows into a great power, it is pushing outward and disturbing the status quo across Asia. Because water defines the geopolitics of East Asia, Beijing’s rise is impacting numerous maritime boundaries that once held solid or had simply been ignored.

One of these numerous disputes is between China and South Korea over a rock in the Yellow Sea known as Ieodo-Suyan. (Seoul calls it Ieodo, China calls it Suyan Rock and the international community refers to it as Socotra Rock.) This small landmass has been a point of contention since the 1990s, leading to violent clashes between fishermen and coastguard vessels. Beijing, however, may now be willing to make a concession to Seoul in the Yellow Sea to further solidify its South China Sea position. By being lenient with South Korea, China has a chance to set an example for other counter-claimants. Resolving the Ieodo-Suyan dispute may also reduce South Korea’s potential for involvement in the South China Sea, slightly eroding US power in the region by creating friction within the US-Japan-Korea security alliance.

Disputed waters

In early November it was announced that South Korean and Chinese representatives were to meet in December for talks aimed at demarcating their maritime border in the Yellow Sea — negotiations that will also determine ownership of Ieodo-Suyan.

[The meeting was supposed to have been held on December 22. But there has been no solid news about the meeting until now.]

This dispute is unlike many other Asian maritime disputes, which normally center on islands, because Ieodo-Suyan is not an island but a submerged rock. This makes it distinct in international law: ownership of the tiny landmass will not determine actual possession of territory but instead the extent of South Korean and Chinese territorial waters. In many ways this makes the issue easier to settle. This has not meant that the dispute has been a quiet one, however, and Ieodo-Suyan has been the scene of violence between coast guard and fishing vessels and is included in both countries’ recently expanded Air Defense Identification Zones.

Maritime disputes are increasingly common in East Asia. The roots of the problem developed in the 1990s when many nations ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which expanded the range of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to 200 nautical miles. This placed considerably more maritime territory into bilateral and multilateral contention, leaving the contesting nations to resolve their disputes through dialogue — or else leave the disputes unresolved.

Attention has focused on the islands, islets and reefs in the South China Sea and on the Senkaku-Diaoyutai and Dokdo-Takeshima disputes between Japan and China and South Korea respectively, but there are other contentious disputes over maritime boundaries that have received less attention.

The disputed waters between China and South Korea in the Yellow Sea are notable, and Ieodo-Suyan in particular. The submerged rock sits 4.6 meters below sea level and is only visible in the troughs of waves during the most extreme weather. It is 80 nautical miles from the closest Korea island (Marado), 155 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese island (Sheshan Island), and 149 nautical miles from the nearest Japanese island (Torishima).

As a submerged rock, Ieodo-Suyan does not offer any particular right of territoriality. Rather, determining legal control of Ieodo-Suyan will be based on how territorial waters are delineated. South Korea claims Ieodo falls within its continental shelf, and that it is inside what would be a mid-point line between China and Korea. China claims that because Ieodo-Suyan is located on the shelf that extends from Chinese land, it should therefore be included within the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone.

The stakes

Much of the dispute centers over access to important fishing grounds, and Ieodo-Suyan plays a role in the folklore of fishermen on South Korea’s large southern island of Cheju. Violent encounters between Chinese fishing vessels and South Korean coast guard ships frequently occur near the rock, including incidents in 2011 and 2014 that led to fatalities. After years of failing to resolve the territorial disagreement, in 2003 South Korea built an elevated structure on Ieodo-Suyan, incorporating a helipad as well as hydrographic and weather stations. In 2013, China unilaterally expanded its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, bringing Ieodo-Suyan within the new Chinese zone. South Korea responded by expanding its own ADIZ to include the rock as well. (Prior to 2013 Ieodo-Suyan was only included within Japan’s ADIZ.) Chinese officials were quick to point out amid a political outcry in Korea that an ADIZ is not an assertion of sovereignty. The extension, however, was a strong political signal of China’s more active policies when it comes to its broader maritime claims.

In 2014, South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that Seoul and Beijing would begin the formal discussions on their maritime boundary before the end of 2015. Both countries said that these talks will begin this month. Although such talks may take years to complete, there is an incentive for China to accelerate negotiations with South Korea and to perhaps offer a more conciliatory solution to the dispute. China has long pressed for bilateral resolutions to its maritime disputes: bilateral negotiations often favor China and keep opposing claimants divided. By showing a willingness to compromise with South Korea, China would send a signal to counter-claimants across Asia that it is willing to make deals for mutual benefit.

This may be more important now as China awaits the outcome of a Philippine court case against Beijing’s claims to disputed territory. The court is not ruling on the legitimacy of the claims, it is instead ruling on the definition of the territories in question. If they are not deemed “islands,” instead defined as high tide elevations or even just artificial islands, it could jeopardize China’s broader maritime claims.

Ieodo-Suyan is an important fishing ground and may be located near subsurface oil and natural gas deposits, but it is not an island and in itself cannot really allow either China or South Korea to exert power in the nearby seas. Its location is more pertinent to South Korea’s maritime security than to China’s, as Seoul expands its naval presence in Cheju both to protect its southern approaches and to monitor or interdict North Korean naval and maritime activity passing around the southern end of the Korean peninsula. This may make China less likely to take a hard line on where to draw the boundary, even if there is concern from the domestic fishing community.

China is also working to disrupt the strategic triangle between the United States, Japan and South Korea, through a combination of defense activities, economic incentives and political relations. China is one of the most critical trading partners for South Korea. Beijing has been able to help South Korea manage North Korean threats and the recent ratification of the China-South Korea free trade agreement will only strengthen the already important economic ties. China is also pushing Japan and South Korea to pursue a trilateral Northeast Asian trade agreement, emphasizing the importance of working alongside — rather than in opposition to — China. By offering territorial concessions to South Korea, Beijing may further reduce Seoul’s interest in getting involved in the South China Sea disputes. This flies in the face of US efforts to draw its two regional allies closer.

Finally, there is a precedent for Chinese concessions. When China resolved part of its maritime border with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000, China conceded a bit more of the disputed waters than Vietnam. China still holds this up as an example of a viable bilateral solution, although other maritime disputes with Vietnam remain. China is also preparing for additional talks with Vietnam on the mouth of the gulf, again trying to emphasize the potential benefits of directly engaging China rather than drawing the United States military into the equation.

While resolving such disputes is never easy, for China there are strategic reasons to take a more conciliatory approach in its talks with South Korea.