A Lynx helicopter takes off from the flight deck of a South Korean Navy destroyer. Photo: AFP/Lee Jin-man

South Korea will dispatch a destroyer to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, it was announced on Tuesday, though in an independent capacity, without officially joining the US-led naval coalition in the region.

Seoul will extend the operational reach of its Cheonghae Unit, currently engaged in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, to the strait, the Ministry of National Defense stated in a press release on Tuesday.

The Cheonghae Unit has customarily consisted of a single destroyer – now the Wang Geon – with a Lynx helicopter. Special operations personnel are also believed to be aboard and saw action during a 2011 operation to retrieve a South Korean vessel and release its crew captured by pirates.

The Cheonghae Unit, with its home base in Chinhae, South Korea, will use Muscat, Oman, as its forward operating base, according to TV news reports. Two South Korean liaison officers will be based in Bahrain with the multinational coalition, which oversees Australian, British, Saudi, UAE and US naval forces in the Persian Gulf.

By extending the operational range of the Cheonghae Unit, rather than activating a new unit, Seoul does not have to seek parliamentary approval, the reports said. Citing operational security, a Defense Ministry spokesperson declined to tell Asia Times when the unit will arrive in the Gulf.

Seoul follows Tokyo’s lead

Seoul appears to have followed the lead of Tokyo in both the size and nature of its deployment.

The announcement of the South Korean dispatch follows news on December 26 that Japan was sending a destroyer and two maritime reconnaissance aircraft to the Gulf in February. Tokyo announced that its assets would be operating independently, rather than as part of the US-led multinational coalition.

Japan’s unit may be based in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa where – highly unusually for a supposedly pacifist nation – Japan has maintained an air-land-sea base since 2011 for potential regional missions. China, France and the United States also have bases in the African nation.

For Seoul – engaged in a range of historical, diplomatic and trade disputes with Tokyo – it may have been essential to do something after the Japanese moved, in order to ensure that the United States remains even-handed in its relations with both allies.

“If the Japanese do something, the Koreans have to, too,” Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine officer with extensive experience of both the Japanese and Korean armed forces, told Asia Times.

The Persian Gulf is a key conduit for the two East Asian manufacturing powerhouses. Both are net energy importers, and both are cutting their use of nuclear power, necessitating a continued reliance upon fossil fuels. Local news reports state that 70% of South Korean crude oil comes from the Gulf. For Japan, that number is higher, at 90%.

Last year, both nations secured a temporary waiver of international sanctions, allowing them to import Iranian oil. And both the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministries cleared their Gulf deployments with Tehran.

American pressure

But the spur to action was not simply the urge to protect national assets, such as oil tankers passing through the Gulf – it was almost certainly also a case of US pressure, presenting both countries with requests they could not turn down.

Both capitals are under pressure from US President Donald Trump’s administration to contribute more to their own defense – notably by paying more to share costs associated with US troops stationed in those two countries under separate defense alliances.

A trilateral meeting of national-security advisers – Japan’s Shigeru Kitamura, Korea’s Chung Eui-young and the US – was held in Washington this month, covering a broad range of issues. Last week, US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris told international journalists that Washington had asked Seoul to “help with maritime security, especially in the Strait of Hormuz.”

“I think they need to be seen as doing something, not least because both of them get a huge amount of their energy from the Persian Gulf, but they are trying to straddle the fence and not get the Iranians too mad,” said Newsham. “There is a long-term, deep-seated refusal to take risks, so they are doing just enough so that the Americans won’t get mad.”

Similar-sized powers have undertaken more extensive deployments. Japan is a G3 nation, South Korea a G11 nation. The UK, a G6 nation, deploys two surface warships, as well as four smaller minesweepers and a landing ship dock that can load marines, in the region.

While the Japanese and South Korean units will officially be operating independently of the Bahrain-headquartered multinational force, Newsham expects them to be plugged into the latter’s communications networks and also expects multinational units to assist either national contingent if they encounter difficulties.

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