By Koh Byung-joon, Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, July 13 (Yonhap) -- The recent ruling by an international tribunal on the South China Sea issue is likely to pose yet another diplomatic conundrum for South Korea as a regional territorial dispute could drive up tension between China and the U.S., two countries that Seoul maintains close ties with.
On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that there is no legal ground for China to claim its "historical rights" to the area within the so-called nine-dash line, which covers a large portion of the South China Sea. The suit was lodged by the Philippines in 2013.
China immediately rejected the ruling, saying that it does not accept or recognize it. The U.S., known to support Manila's position, welcomed it, saying that the ruling is "final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines."
With the two global powers at odds, observers here worry that South Korea could face an awkward situation given its close ties with both in many areas ranging from national security to trade.
China is South Korea's largest trading partner and a linchpin along with the U.S. in Seoul's push to enforce toughened sanctions on North Korea.
"The diplomatic situations for us have become very tough," a government official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity, referring to the recent ruling. He did not elaborate further.
The ruling on the South China Sea came just days after South Korea and the U.S. announced their plan to deploy an advanced missile defense system on the peninsula to counter North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
After detonating its fourth nuclear device in January and launching off a long-range rocket the following month, the reclusive country fired off a string of medium range missiles with the latest being the submarine-launched ballistic missile test conducted on Saturday.
China and Russia have opposed the move, expressing concerns that the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interception system could hurt their strategic security interests.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told lawmakers earlier this week that the Seoul government has explained to China and Russia that THAAD is not aimed at a third country, and that it has no intention of hurting their security.
"The government has communicated with other neighboring countries on this matter whenever there was a chance," Yun said. He added that he will keep working to emphasize Seoul's rationale behind the THAAD deployment.
Experts are still voicing worries that the THAAD issue could undermine the painstakingly-built alliance in coping with North Korea which has been defiantly in pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.
"China and Russia are expected to join in enforcing U.N. sanctions, but it has become hard to induce their cooperation in seeking their own sanctions that could further pressure the North," Kim Heung-kyu, head of the China Policy Institute at Ajou University, said after the THAAD decision was announced.
Against such a cloudy diplomatic landscape came the South China Sea ruling and experts are divided over what ramifications that the territorial issue in the South East Sea could have going forward.
Many worry that the international tribunal's ruling could send South Korea into a hot spot where it could be squeezed by the two powers. On the other hand, some are looking at the bright side, arguing that Beijing's attention could be diverted from THAAD for the time being.
"You can say that we have gained some time given that for the Chinese government, the South China Sea issue is more important than THAAD as it has put Beijing right on a collision course with Washington," said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow in the Department of Unification Strategy Studies at Sejong Institute. "How to make the most of this window of opportunity depends on our diplomatic capacity."
Apparently reflecting its difficulty in tip-toeing on a sensitive diplomatic line, the Seoul government did not issue an official response to the ruling right away. Government officials have also evaded making comments on it.
In a little belated two-paragraph-long statement on Wednesday, the foreign ministry called for "peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts" to resolve the South China Sea dispute.
"Our government, while bearing in mind the arbitration ruling announced on July 12, hopes for a resolution of the South China Sea dispute through peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts," the ministry said.
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