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South Korea ups air-zone ante in Asia’s contested waters

South Korea has expanded its air defense zone. On a visit to the region, Vice President Joe Biden criticized China’s recent declaration of its airspace zone. 

In another sign of rising tensions in Asian waters, South Korea declared a larger “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) on Sunday, challenging China’s claim to a submerged rocky shoal that Korea controls and which lies southwest of the Korean peninsula.

South Korea’s expansion of its existing zone appeared to be a direct dividend of Vice President Joe Biden’s two-day visit that ended Saturday during which he discussed the topic with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. The decision raised the stakes in a confrontation that began two weeks ago when China declared an expanded ADIZ over contested waters that include a cluster of Japanese-run islands also claimed by China.            

Mr. Biden, who visited Beijing before arriving in Seoul, was unable to persuade China’s President Xi Jinping to back down from China’s demand that civilian and military aircraft flying through China’s new zone identify themselves in advance. The concern is that China, Japan and South Korea have all put down overlapping air-zone markers on their respective maps, ratcheting up the risk of escalation into an armed clash in the region.

Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, describes the South Korean decision as “not helpful.” South Korea, he says, “is doing exactly what the Chinese did” by using an ADIZ to assert its position in a power struggle.

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“The ADIZ were never supposed to be based on territory,” says Mr. Flake, a veteran analyst of Korean affairs. “They were relatively benign safety things. They did not have territorial significance.”

That definition changed, though, with China’s Nov. 23 assertion of an ADIZ that Japan and South Korea say is illegal. Biden bluntly criticized the zone on his visit, which had been planned in advance of China’s declaration.

“We do not recognize such a zone,” Biden told an audience at Yonsei University in Seoul. He raised the fear of a regional war if China pursued an aggressive policy in waters around its periphery from the East Sea to the South China Sea, which it claims as its own. “The possibility of miscalculation, of a mistake, is real,” he said. There should be “no intimidation, no coercion,” he added, but rather “a commitment to reduce the danger of miscalculation.”

Korean officials have tried to play down their countermove. Jang Hyuk, a defense ministry policy official, said in a televised briefing that the decision would “not significantly impact our relationships with China and with Japan as we try to work for peace and cooperation in NortheastAsia.” He insisted other countries “are in agreement that this move complies with international regulations” but did not say if China held that view. 

South Korea’s calculations involve an obscure rocky shoal known as Ieodo to the Koreans and Suyan to the Chinese. Located 93 miles southwest of Jeju island, and 171 miles east of China’s coast, the rocks are submerged except during severe storms. South Korea has built a helicopter port on the largest of the rocks, which China also claims as its own territory and made sure to place within China’s new ADIZ.