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South Korea, THAAD, and the China Problem

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Asia Defense

South Korea, THAAD, and the China Problem

Will South Korea deploy THAAD – and if so, how will China respond?

South Korea, THAAD, and the China Problem
Credit: US Missile Defense Agency

Many questions have yet to be answered regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. It has been widely reported that discussions regarding deployment have been underway since early March 2016 but after initial hopes of a quick resolution, no end to the discussions seems to be in sight. What will South Korea do? They ultimately have the choice to deploy or not deploy. Their choice will have wide ranging ramifications no matter what they choose.

According to South Korea, the most important issue is security. Everything said publicly thus far has pointed to the fact that South Korea views the North’s ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities as a true security threat. If this were not the case, they would not be potentially ruining their hard-won good relations with China, a relationship which Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the best in history.

What will China do if South Korea decides to deploy THAAD? China has vehemently opposed deployment and even stated through its ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, that the China-South Korea relationship would be “destroyed in an instant” and “take a long time to recover” if the system is deployed as planned. At the heart of China’s opposition is the worry that THAAD will be used against it, despite reassurances from the United States that it would not be. The U.S. even offered to hold discussions with China to help dispel those fears, but the offer has not been accepted.

For its part, the United States is in a good position. Beside South Korea, Japan has considered deploying THAAD. The question for Washington is what, if any, repercussions would exist if South Korea decided against deploying THAAD on its soil. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter seemed confident in April when he noted that it was going to happen. Regarding the push-back from China, he noted that the United States has a responsibility to protect not only its own troops stationed in Korea, but also South Korea as its ally.

So, what can we expect in the future? First, what will South Korea do? While we can only speculate on the course of action South Korea will take, we can analyze the situation through international relations theory.

Realist theory states that survival is most important in understanding how states act. With this in mind, it is perfectly plausible to consider that South Korea is going to deploy THAAD. THAAD is a defensive system meant to protect an area from aerial assault. At this moment, aerial assault is a serious possibility, given the North’s continued research and development of ballistic missiles. While an attack from North Korea would not necessarily threaten the South’s survival, it could potentially damage its economy and threaten peace. We saw the damage of an aerial assault in 2010 as North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island.

Another important tenet of realism is balance of power. While the United States and South Korea see THAAD deployment as an apparatus securing peace and keeping South Korean democracy strong, China (and Russia) see it as a threat to the current balance of power. In essence, the problem we see simmering in East Asia is similar to the problem currently boiling in Eastern Europe.

In a piece written for Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer, the preeminent offensive realist, stated that Russia and the United States were “playing with different playbooks” regarding the Ukraine crisis. The United States was following its liberal policy of democratization, spread of Western ideals, and reliance on international institutions. Russia was more concerned with survival and balance of power.

The issue of THAAD deployment in South Korea can be viewed through a similar lens. South Korea, along with Japan, are the model bastions of democracy in Asia; the United States has a strong interest in ensuring democracy continues in the region. Regarding South Korea, it is true that THAAD will protect U.S. troops currently serving on the peninsula. But why are they there in the first place? In South Korea, the U.S. is pursuing its liberal policy of democratization, spread of Western ideals, and reliance on international institutions. First, the U.S. military is securing democracy in South Korea against the communism of North Korea. The troops are also there to ensure that when unification happens, it happens under the democracy of the South. As for relying on international institutions, the UN has been the center of sanctions against the North, as well as interactions with Pyongyang, in recent years. Finally, you can see Western ideals and culture growing stronger in South Korea.

For its part, China has been most concerned not about liberalism but about the balance of power in the region. It does not want to see the collapse of the North nor does it want unification under Western democracy. It uses North Korea as a buffer from the West in the same way that Russia uses the Ukraine as a buffer from the Western ideals of Europe. The buffers are also needed to restrict having opposing militaries right on their doorstep. It is fair to say that the United States and China are playing with different playbooks in East Asia.

I think it is safe to say South Korea will deploy THAAD. A strong case has been made regarding deployment. So what will China do? If you ask Mearsheimer that question, he would probably point to the impending security dilemma that will arise in East Asia. After the deployment of THAAD, it is reasonable to expect China to develop technology that would render THAAD useless; thus the beginnings of an arms race. We could enter into a new cold war that could have the possibility of turning hot. Mearsheimer doesn’t have a peaceful prediction for East Asia. As a matter of fact, he predicts war; deployment of THAAD to South Korea could be the catalyst that sets the United States and China (and by association, South and North Korea) on a collision course.

Is this the future we have to look forward to? Will we see war in our lifetime? I think most would disagree with Mearsheimer. The prospect of seeing four of the top seven armies facing off is a scary thought indeed. It is safe to assume that cooler heads will prevail. Considering the THAAD system will not interfere with China, there should be no security dilemma and no arms race. I think the Chinese are bluffing when they say that deployment of THAAD will ruin China-South Korea relations; it is certainly possible that China has ulterior motives for such strong opposition.

So where do we go from here? We may have to wait until after the U.S. presidential election for this to come to fruition. The United States under a Donald Trump presidency is unpredictable at best. There is no way to tell if his government would continue to pursue THAAD deployment in South Korea. It is certainly possible he would scupper the idea given his aversion to spending U.S. dollars on South Korean security. Under a President Hillary Clinton, the architect of the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” we can safely assume that THAAD will be deployed in South Korea. For its part, China will continue to raise its opposition, but in the end it will not ruin its relations with South Korea. Relations may take a step back, but they will continue their strong economic partnership.

Phillip Schrank is a PhD student at Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies. He is also an Instructor at the Korea Military Academy.