China has included South Koreas Ieo Island on the list of regular monitoring by maritime surveillance vessels and planes, claiming that the island is inside Chinese territorial waters. Ieo is an underwater rock 149 kilometers southwest of Koreas southernmost island of Mara. Ieo is located where South Korean and Chinese economic exclusive zones overlap but is closer to South Korean waters. The closest Chinese island is Sheshan at 287 kilometers from Ieo. South Korea set up a maritime research center on the island in 2003 and Korean researchers live there. The island belongs to South Korea but China is trying to flex its hegemonistic agenda based on its economic and military power.
Beijing has begun shifting the focus of its defense strategies from land to sea and building up its naval power. By dividing its maritime defense boundary lines into two -- one from Okinawa and Taiwan to the Philippines and the other from Saipan and Guam to Indonesia -- China apparently seeks to control the Pacific. A case in point is Chinas first aircraft carrier Varyag, which will go into commission this year. China announced last year its intent to enter the East Sea separating South Korea and Japan by sending two military vessels there for the first time in 15 years.
To brace for China`s claim to South Koreas sovereign waters, the planned naval base on Jeju Island is a must. China is locking horns with Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea and with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu in Chinese. If disputes arise over Ieo, the South Korean Navy should respond to them. It will take 23 hours for the South Korean Navy to reach the island from Busan, but the Chinese east fleet in Ningbo can get there in just 18 hours. If the Jeju base is established, the South Korean Navy can make it in just eight hours. Response time is a critical factor that determines the outcome of a military operation.
The naval base is also essential to protecting the Jeju sea route, where more than 90 percent of inbound and outbound maritime freight passes. Up to 100 billion barrels of oil and 7.2 billion tons of natural gas are also presumed to be buried underwater near Ieo as well. Such an ample volume of natural resources is another reason behind Beijings dispatch of a naval vessel in July last year to waters near Ieo and its territorial claim to the island.
Those in South Korea opposed to the construction of the Jeju base present themselves as peacekeepers and environmentalists, but are eventually helping China and North Korea. Therefore, they must stop hindering the project. Going against the construction of the naval base is tantamount to giving up national security and interest.