South Korea says it has extended its air defence zone to partially overlap with a similar zone declared by China two weeks ago that has sharply raised regional tensions.
Beijing’s declaration of an air defence identification zone in an area that includes islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Japan has triggered protests from the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Announcing the expansion of its own zone to include two territorial islands to the south and a submerged rock also claimed by China, South Korea’s defence ministry said the move would not infringe on neighbouring countries’ sovereignty.
“We believe this will not significantly impact our relationships with China and with Japan as we try to work for peace and co-operation in north-east Asia,” defence ministry head of policy Jang Hyuk told a briefing.
“We have explained our position to related countries and overall they are in agreement that this move complies with international regulations and is not an excessive measure,” he said, adding the ministry’s top priority was to work with neighbouring countries to prevent military confrontation.
South Korea had objected to last month’s move by China as unacceptable because its new zone includes a maritime rock named Ieodo, which Seoul controls, with a research station platform built on it. China also claims the submerged rock.
But South Korea’s reaction to Beijing has been more measured than the sharp rebukes delivered from Tokyo and Washington, reflecting a sensitivity towards Seoul’s largest trading partner.
The extension of South Korea’s zone will not apply any restrictions to the operation of commercial flights, the defence ministry said separately in a statement. The move would take effect on 15 December, it said. It will also overlap with Japan’s air defence zone, Jang said.
There was no immediate reaction from China, although Beijing’s response to news last week that South Korea was reviewing its options on the air defence zone was relatively low key.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Friday that any move by South Korea must “accord with international law and norms”, but added: “China is willing to maintain communications with South Korea on the basis of equality and mutual respect.”
The decision by China that kicked off the latest spat was the subject of a tense disagreement as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, visited China last week, stressing Washington’s objections to the move that he said caused “significant apprehension” in the region.
Japan’s defence minister, on a visit to the Philippines on Sunday, called on the international community to oppose China’s zone and any move to establish a similar zone over the disputed South China Sea.
Itsunori Onodera discussed Japan’s concern over China’s action separately with the Philippines defence secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, and Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop.
In his meeting with Bishop, Onodera said he mentioned that the international community “should meet to deal with this matter together” and that any unilateral action by coercive means should be opposed.
“If any country would establish a similar air zone in the South China Sea, that would bring up tension in the region and I mentioned that should be stopped,” he told reporters in Tacloban, where he visited a school serving as a shelter for villagers who lost their homes in last month’s typhoon.
He said that the issue should be resolved by dialogue.
China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Ma Keqing, said last week it was Beijing’s right to decide “where and when to set up” an air identification zone. She was asked about a possibility that China might set up a similar zone over the South China Sea.
Ma did not say if China would set up such a zone.
Onodera said China’s unilateral action violated the spirit of the International Civil Aviation Organization treaty.
Ties between China and Japan have been strained for months by the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea, called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan.
Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, but recognises Tokyo’s administrative control and says a US-Japan security pact applies to them.
Beijing says its zone is in accordance with international law and Washington and others should respect it.
Under the Chinese zone’s rules, all aircraft have to report flight plans to Chinese authorities, maintain radio contact and reply promptly to identification inquiries.
US, Japanese and South Korean military aircraft have breached the zone without informing Beijing since it was announced. South Korean and Japanese commercial planes have also been advised by their governments not to follow the rules.