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Republic of Korea Navy and China's Rise: Balancing Competing Priorities

| 2012


South Korean concerns for China's evolving maritime interests and capabilities are part of a larger and complicated relationship. The two share a long history with far reaching cultural ties and numerous common interests. Seoul recognizes that it needs Beijing's help and influence in dealing with North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea—DPRK) and their economic ties have grown significantly since establishing formal diplomatic relations twenty years ago. In 1992, South Korea's (Republic of Korea—ROK) trade with China was only $6.4 billion but by 2011 had grown to $220.6 billion with a $47.7 billion surplus for South Korea.1 Since 2003 China has been South Korea's number one trading partner, a position long held by the United States. For China, these trade levels are smaller as a share of its total trade but for South Korea, China consumes close to 30 percent of its exports. However, South Korea is the 4th largest source of foreign direct investment for China.2 In May 2012, South Korea and China began negotiations on a free trade agreement. Thus, continued prosperity for the ROK economy, now the 15th largest in the world, depends greatly on its economic ties with China. Some ROK scholars and analysts have raised concern that growing U.S.-Sino rivalry will place South Korea in a difficult position that forces it to choose with the possibility of having to go against ROK interests by siding too closely with Washington. Others maintain that the ROK-U.S. alliance remains the bedrock of South Korea's security, with others arguing that the proper course is to balance these positions by maintaining the alliance while being more attentive to ROK relations with others in East Asia.3

Despite the strong economic ties and common interests, South Korea also has some anxiety regarding its relations with China. Some of the concerns include trepidation over China's overall strategic direction, Beijing's efforts to forcibly repatriate North Korea defectors along with its overall human rights record, a historical dispute over the ancient Kingdom of Koguryo (Gaogouli to China),4 and Beijing's reluctance to criticize Pyongyang for the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan (March 2010) and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do (November 2010). In addition to these matters, there are several maritime issues that are problems in the relationship that impact ROK maritime strategy and naval modernization. The South Korean Navy does not appear to have made any specific operational changes in response to its concerns but its development of a blue water navy continues in part with an eye toward China.

While China is a part of ROK motivation for developing a blue water navy, Seoul has other reasons. South Korean leaders have recognized that as its economic and political power have grown, so too have its interests and need to protect them. As its power and influence as a rising middle power have increased, South Korea has begun to build a blue water navy commensurate with that position. Heavily dependent on international trade, the South Korean Navy helps guard shipping lanes and contribute to global efforts to protect the maritime commons. In addition, ROK leaders are concerned about the continuing maritime threat posed by North Korea as demonstrated by the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do events along with the dispute that continues with Japan over Dokdo, or Takeshima to the Japanese.

Thus, South Korea faces a complex security environment that increasingly has important maritime components, a situation that produces many competing priorities from coastal defense against North Korea to regional concerns, and finally to global protection of sea lanes and contributing to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HADR). Consequently, concerns for China are only one piece of the ROK Navy's strategy and force planning decisions.

The remainder of this paper will address the history and current structure of the ROK blue water navy, ROK-Sino maritime disputes, and recommendations to address future challenges.

1 Korea Customs Service, "Import/Export by Country," trade/

2 Li Jiabao, "China, S. Korea launch FTA negotiations," Jakarta Post, May 3, 2012, http://www.

3 Song Sang-ho, "S. Korea faces strategic choices amid growing Sino-U.S. rivalry," Korea Herald, July 12, 2012

4 Terence Roehrig, "History as a Strategic Weapon: The Korean and Chinese Struggle over Koguryo," Journal of Asian and African Studies 45, no. 1 (February 2010): 5–28.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Roehrig, Terence. “Republic of Korea Navy and China's Rise: Balancing Competing Priorities.” In CNA Maritime Asia Project Workshop Two: Naval Developments in Asia. 2012.

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