The Koreas

THAAD in South Korea: What Does It Really Mean for China?

Are China’s concerns over THAAD deployment justified?

THAAD in South Korea: What Does It Really Mean for China?
Credit: US Missile Defense Agency

On July 7, 2016, South Korea and the United States officially confirmed their decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on South Korean soil. This is a joint response to North Korea’s continual testing of new medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and to its belligerent rhetoric, including the declared intention to attack U.S. military bases in the Pacific and also the continental United States. North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests and claims to have miniaturized nuclear warheads; no one can doubt the reality of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

At the Shangri-La Dialogue last May, the principal diplomatic forum for Asia-Pacific security issues, China already registered a strong protest against the possibility of THAAD deployment, and South Korea and the United States expect a robust reaction to last week’s confirmation. China’s concerns are: THAAD could use its X-band radar to defeat China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which relies on a ballistic missile attack upon U.S. forward bases in East Asia; the THAAD decision implies that South Korea may join the U.S.-led Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system; and THAAD represents a serious reduction in the effectiveness of the buffer zone between U.S. and Chinese forces in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. But who is responsible for the current situation? And is China really being treated unfairly? Let us examine the facts.

First, China should be wary of provoking a backlash of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. Since President Park Geun-hye came to office in 2013 she has made huge diplomatic efforts to encourage China to do more about North Korea. She has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping six times, and even attended last September’s military parade in Beijing, despite U.S. discomfort. South Koreans held a generally favorable attitude toward China, until recently even preferring Xi to U.S. President Barack Obama. There was a reasonable expectation that the substantial economic interdependence of China and South Korea could be leveraged to improve security cooperation, and thus to find a way to deal with North Korea’s defiance of international sanctions. Now China seems inclined to treat South Korea as a tributary state, and this Middle Kingdom mentality threatens to undermine the strategic cooperative partnership between Beijing and Seoul.

Second, this decision has not been taken lightly or precipitously, but only as a last resort. Since 2013, when the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) raised the issue of THAAD deployment, Park has proved her reluctance to take this step, despite the entirely reasonable concerns of the four-star USFK Army general to protect his units from North Korean WMD threats. The delay provided China with a window to find alternative means to constrain the behavior of its rogue ally, but produced no significant results. It is China’s failure to act that has led to the THAAD deployment. China must have known that lip-service about Pyongyang’s “deeply deplorable” actions, and China’s “regret” and “concern,” would never be enough.

Third, despite Park’s earnest efforts to communicate how seriously South Korea views the North Korean WMD threat, China has shamefully betrayed her pains. Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, on January 6, 2016, she attempted to reach Xi by telephone, but he declined to speak with her. This was not an honest response from a trustworthy partner. Park has made a real attempt to balance South Korea’s relations with China against the U.S.-ROK security alliance; she deserved better from Xi. Park’s China policy is in tatters, through no fault of hers. This is why THAAD deployment has become necessary.

Fourth, given the increasing ideological alienation between North Korea and China, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that North Korean missiles may target China itself within the foreseeable future. This would surely attract widespread discontent and severe criticism from the ordinary Chinese people who are currently being kept loyal by Xi’s vision of the “Chinese Dream.” Park has always clearly distinguished South Korea’s need to protect against North Korean WMD threats from the geopolitical wrangling between China and the United States, so China’s leaders will become deeply unpopular if, through ignoring this distinction, China becomes a North Korean target.

Fifth, the ball is now very obviously in China’s court: will Beijing finally start to take North Korea’s WMD threat seriously? Its president, Kim Jong-un, is now behaving just as he likes, blatantly (though unsuccessfully) testing an SLBM on July 9, 2016, within hours of the THAAD announcement, and utterly ignoring China’s warnings. If China wants to avoid any further unwelcome news, for example South Korea deciding to formally participate in the U.S.-led BMD system, together with Japan, China should stop sitting on its hands and do something to rein in its unruly client. Mere words just will not cut it anymore.

Time to Discuss China-South Korea-U.S. Cooperation

If the China-U.S. confrontation on the Korean Peninsula could be mitigated, this would allow China to engage in genuine security coordination to deal with North Korean WMD threats. It is not too late to prevent THAAD deployment, but China must learn to recognize its true interests. China would be relieved to escape the supposedly destabilizing effect of THAAD (Beijing argues that THAAD would not be operationally effective against North Korean ICBMs, and must therefore have another purpose), and South Korea would not have to find a site for the THAAD facility, which has encountered significant opposition from local people concerned about its safety. Also, some regional countries, most notably Russia, are worried that THAAD represents a step toward a new Cold War. And within South Korea there is significant popular support for a new trilateral security entente between Beijing, Seoul, and Washington, and notice that such people reject being characterized as “pro-China.”

Moreover, there is a path to resetting relations with the Pyongyang regime: a simultaneous implementation of North Korean denuclearization and a peace treaty between North Korea and the United States to replace the current inflexible Armistice Agreement.

The existing strategic cooperative partnership between China and South Korea cannot long sustain the destructive impact of the fundamental disagreement over THAAD. Soon it will be hard to avoid an escalating militarization of the Korean Peninsula, perhaps with South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. China can still prevent this boomerang outcome, but only through a more flexible approach based on reality rather than ideology. China must cooperate, in good faith, with the United States and South Korea about the North Korean WMD threats. The situation is grave, and threatens the security of the whole of Northeast Asia, as well as the wider world.

Captain (ROK Navy Ret.) Sukjoon Yoon is a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, and Director of the International Maritime Security Studies Program.

This piece was originally published on The Interpreter, the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.