BEIJING // China has gained direct access to the Sea of Japan for the first time in 100 years through a North Korean port, leaving the other two regional players, Japan and South Korea, deeply concerned about the communist state's ambitions. China made an agreement to lease a pier at North Korea's Rajin Port for 10 years, China's Global Times, an official newspaper and the international arm of the People's Daily, said on Wednesday. China claims the move is purely economic.
"China has finally found a direct trade outlet to the Sea of Japan - It is the country's first access to the maritime space in its north-east since it was blocked over a century ago," said the newspaper, adding that infrastructure renovation is "currently underway". The news, which confirmed South Korean reports from last week, was portrayed by China as a largely economic deal, which was perceived as a move to allay its two regional neighbours' concerns. South Korea and Japan, however, remain troubled about its implications for regional security.
The North Korean port city is considered a hub that will help forays into the Pacific region from China's north-east. South Korea's foreign ministry on Tuesday said it is "closely watching" the agreement. "The North Korea-China agreement will have a big impact on geopolitics in the region," the South's Yonhap news agency said. Mikyoung Kim, a North Korea expert at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Japan, said: "China has a very strong navy. The North Korean port doesn't freeze during the winter. Now, with China's direct access to the Sea of Japan, Japan feels pinched in the region."
Lu Chao, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, located near the North Korean border, said the outside concerns are unwarranted. "It's essentially a very simple commercial contract, not like what is reported outside, as if China is about to control the Sea of Japan," he said. Russia also obtained the right to use the port, he said. Yet Cai Jian, a security expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the neighbouring countries' concerns are understandable. "I personally don't believe that there is only an economic angle to the deal. Some other considerations were also factored into it."
Yang Moo-jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said the deal was basically a "win-win deal" for both China and North Korea. "The cash-strapped North Korea needs foreign investment. And it chose China. North Korea can earn foreign cash through the deal, and China can have a logistics centre where its landlocked north-eastern region's products can be exported directly via the Pacific." The China-North Korea deal, observers believe, complicates the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea. China agreed during senior-level talks last year to make investments totalling US$10 billion (Dh37bn) in its impoverished neighbour to build railways, housing and other infrastructure, Yonhap reported last month. This week, China also announced that starting from April 12, it would allow Chinese group tours to North Korea.
These moves, which are expected to prop up North Korea economically, are technically outside the realms of UN sanctions, which only cover arms deals and not "normal" civilian trade and infrastructure development in the country. "Actually, what appeared to be a pure economic deal is in fact a product of political considerations from China," Ms Kim said in Japan. "China doesn't want North Korea to collapse. It's a political move to provide an economic lifeline to North Korea in order to prevent its collapse."
South Korea is watchful. Eventually, it wants reunification with the North. "It is possible that China's lease of the North Korean territory [the port] can be extended over the 10 years into a long-term deal. That can complicate the South's effort for reunification. The South cannot just sit and watch," Ms Kim said. She said she suspects China has a long-term goal. "China has been pursuing the North-east Project, a territorially ambitious project. In case of contingency in North Korea through an upheaval there, China may claim the leased territory as its own."
Mr Cai in Shanghai discounts the view. "The concern is unnecessary. When China makes a deal like this with North Korea, it approaches very carefully because North Koreans themselves are very sensitive about their sovereignty. I don't think China has a long-term ambition on this leased land. For China, economic consideration is the main, while there may be other considerations." South Korea is also concerned because the leased port is not far from Wonsan, North Korea's major naval base, and it sees the surrounding area as strategically important.
Japan, a historical rival to China, also is concerned that China has possible military uses for the port, gaining direct access to the Sea of Japan. "It's natural for Japan to pay attention to the matter. China has a strong navy, equipped with advanced submarines. China's access to the Sea of Japan makes Japan nervous, which mainly relies for its security on the US. It's much more so now because the relationship between Japan and the US has cracked lately," Ms Kim said.
Despite Chinese security analysts' downplaying the matter, some outside analysts view the deal as ultimately part of China's rising world power ambition, a view China strongly denies. "Although China is a big country, many of its key areas are landlocked. Other powerful countries in the world don't have the difficulty of entering the sea China faces," said Global Times newspaper. "The US directly faces two oceans in its east and west. Russia has a big part of its territory that is coastal. Japan is an island country by itself. India is a peninsula," it said.