South Korea sending naval forces to Strait of Hormuz to boost security

Anti-war activists stage a rally against the South Korean government's decision to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz near the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 23 January 2020

South Korea sending naval forces to Strait of Hormuz to boost security

  • Iranian Foreign Ministry says the decision is ‘unacceptable’

SEOUL: South Korea will send naval forces to the Strait of Hormuz in response to a US request to boost security in the region.

Around 70 percent of the South’s oil imports pass through the waterway and its vessels sail through it hundreds of times every year. Tensions have been higher in the Middle East since a top Iranian general was killed earlier this month in a US airstrike. There have also been jitters about maritime security in the strait, where oil tankers have been attacked and vessels have been seized.

But there are warnings that the South’s decision could strain relations with major oil producer Iran, even though the anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit will not be joining an international US-led coalition.

“In view of the current situation in the Middle East, we decided to extend the operational radius of the Cheonghae Unit for a limited time so as to ensure the safety of our people and the freedom of navigation of South Korean vessels,” Jung Suk-hwan, a policy adviser to Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, told reporters on Tuesday. He stressed that the unit would not operate as part of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) led by US naval command headquarters in Bahrain. 

Instead, South Korea is scheduled to dispatch liaison officers to share information and help facilitate potential cooperation with the IMSC.

The 300-strong Cheonghae Unit has been stationed in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. A 4,400-ton destroyer codenamed the KDX-II is sent to the region on a rotational basis. Among its missions were the rescue of a South Korean ship and its crew in 2011, shooting eight people suspected of being pirates and capturing five others.

The Defense Ministry said that the unit’s operational area would expand to 2,830 km from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Gulf.

“The Middle East is home to about 25,000 South Korean residents and the Strait of Hormuz is a strategically important area that accounts for some 70 percent of our crude oil shipments,” Jung said, adding that South Korean ships sailed through the waterway around 900 times a year.

The South has said its operations will be independent, but Iran has expressed its displeasure.

“The Korean government has informed us that it wants to dispatch a part of its fleet in Aden to the region for patrolling missions, but outside the US coalition, and we have told them that the decision is unacceptable,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Monday.

He said such a decision was in line with the US policy of “adventurism” and that it did not fit in with the friendly relations between Tehran and Seoul. 

Experts said it was a balancing act and that there could be repercussions for the South.

“It’s a delicate decision by Seoul to meet the demands of Washington and Tehran, as well as to minimize the damage in relations between the two governments,” Jung Sang-ryul, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs at Myungji University, told Arab News. “But the decision doesn’t suit Iran’s taste.”

The Cheonghae Unit’s KDX-II destroyer is equipped with enhanced defensive equipment, including an updated anti-submarine sensor and a close-in weapon system, according to a military source.

“Three key threats to the Cheonghae Unit are drone, torpedo and missile,” the source said, requesting anonymity. “The KDX-II destroyer is now armed with systems to respond to those threats effectively.”

Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network thinktank, said an attack on the destroyer during patrol missions could not be ruled out because the South was not operating wholly independently of the US.

Washington has welcomed Seoul’s deployment decision.

“As we have stated in the past, this is an international problem that requires an international solution,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying. “We welcome our South Korean allies helping to ensure freedom of navigation in the Middle East by supporting the IMSC.”

Asian countries pledge ‘regional solidarity’ with China over coronavirus outbreak

Updated 5 min 24 sec ago

Asian countries pledge ‘regional solidarity’ with China over coronavirus outbreak

  • China in emergency summit plea for more people-to-people cooperation to contain pandemic

KUALA LUMPUR: An intergovernmental group of Asian countries on Thursday pledged support to China in its fight against the killer coronavirus outbreak.

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) declared their “solidarity” in working to reduce the economic and social impact of the pandemic on the region.

“ASEAN expressed its confidence that China would be able to handle the outbreak, however, each ASEAN country offers their help to China to address the crisis together,” said the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), being held in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, he added: “There are impacts, especially economic impacts. We will work together to overcome this.”

The minister pointed out that the association had pinpointed a need to strengthen information exchange between ASEAN and China. He said that it was still unclear how the virus was being spread, which was “all the more reason for us to exchange notes.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged nations to strengthen people-to-people cooperation in the region, as ASEAN ministers and Chinese officials held hands while chanting, “stay strong, Wuhan. Stay strong, China. Stay strong, ASEAN.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that more than 77,000 people have contracted the virus worldwide, the majority of them in China.

Dr. Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News on Thursday that the special China-ASEAN meeting sent a strong message to the world that the region was taking the virus outbreak “very seriously. These countries are seeking a more collaborative approach in handling the matter. Hopefully, it could at least improve the mechanism of sharing timely information and best practices in countering the outbreak.”

Thomas Daniel, senior analyst at the Malaysian Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the main outcome of the meeting was “regional solidarity” and cultivating a sense of confidence-building in the wider region.

“It is more about the images and messaging than it is about concrete actions putting forward,” he added.

Daniel noted that China had been very appreciative of the support shown by ASEAN for the ongoing health crisis and said: “The emergency meeting definitely could have been done earlier. In cases like this, most of the time reactions are ‘nation first.’ It takes time for a multilateral approach to take place.”

However, ASEAN member states have so far been uncoordinated in implementing preventive measures to stop the virus’ spread.

While Malaysia won praise from the WHO and Singapore was lauded by Harvard University experts on Tuesday, Cambodia on Feb. 14 allowed hundreds of passengers on the Westerdam cruise ship to disembark in the port of Sihanoukville. Days later, coronavirus infections were reported among those who were allowed to go ashore.