North Korea has successfully conducted its fifth nuclear test. In doing so, it has improved the precision of its nuclear arsenal and now poses an even greater threat to regional stability. Meanwhile, calls have begun to emerge from within South Korea for that country to consider becoming a nuclear power in its own right. It is in this climate that China’s opposition to South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has been thrown into sharp relief. China’s reasoning is that it not only has to look after its own interests but also has a responsibility to ensure the overall security of the region, yet the touchstone issue is whether China recognizes that the THAAD deployment is actually in its own interest. If China wishes to establish a new great power relationship with the United States and take on the role of regional leader, it would be to its long-term benefit to share South Korea’s recognition of the threat that North Korea poses, and approve of South Korea’s participation in the U.S. THAAD system. No matter how much a country benefits from its relationship with China, it will balk at making it a regional leader if it doesn’t share the same regional security interests.
China has hitherto indicated strong opposition to South Korea’s participation in the THAAD system. At a meeting between Chinese and South Korean leaders on the sidelines of the G20 Hangzhou Summit, President Xi Jinping warned that if President Park Geun-hye did not handle THAAD “properly,” it could worsen the strategic standing between the two countries. For one thing, China has military concerns, noting that the range of the early-warning radar deployed by the THAAD system would extend to coastal China, compromising the capabilities of its own ballistic missiles. And Beijing doesn’t look favorably upon any strengthening of the U.S.-South Korea alliance on a military, technological or political level. China’s reasoning is also quite clear in terms of its realist worldview that only considers its national interests from a zero-sum perspective.
A China expert once told me that Beijing’s strategic goal with regard to the Japan-U.S. alliance was its neutralization, and it may want the same fate for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. But international relations are not governed purely by zero-sum elements. The fact that China does not identify with South Korea and Japan’s estimation of North Korea as a serious threat is not just a diplomatic issue; it stands in the way of China’s aspirations to become a regional leader as it seeks to forge a new great power relationship with the United States moving forward.
For the Chinese, even if North Korea is like a troublesome henchman that doesn’t do what it’s told, since the latter cannot survive without China’s support on both the economic and security fronts, it perhaps serves as a convenient presence, in the sense that China is the only country it will never defy. But for South Korea and Japan, the North is an extremely serious threat because the lengths the regime in Pyongyang might go to hang onto power are unknown. Right now, both South Korea and Japan recognize that the United States’ capacity to retaliate with nuclear and conventional weapons is what prevents the North from taking military action. That is why alliances with the United States are strengthened each time North Korea steps up its provocations.
For Japan, China’s recent strategy of expanding its maritime footprint around the Senkaku Islands and elsewhere is also considered a threat, but China’s government and economy is open to the world, and at least in light of the interests the countries share, there is a function of mutual deterrence at work. Rather, due to their shared interests of regional stability and maintaining economic prosperity, Japan, South Korea and the United States have all looked to China’s influence over North Korea.
Even so, China has created loopholes and halved the effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea for Pyongyang’s repeated violations concerning missile and nuclear development. In light of that, it is understandable that South Korea would strengthen its alliance with the United States, which has established international treaties to provide a deterrent that can ultimately be trusted. China expressing disapproval to this based solely on its own narrow interests may hurt its soft power in the region. At the very least, if China wants its new great power relationship with the United States to be accepted by other countries, it should take a page out of the U.S. playbook and show respect for the interests of related countries with region-wide security in mind.
If a situation developed where North Korea initiated a military attack against South Korea or Japan using nuclear or conventional weapons, that alone would wreak significant damage to the economies of East Asia. The losses suffered by China would be incalculable. What’s more, it is highly likely that the United States would retaliate with military force to fulfill its obligations under its alliances with South Korea and Japan. Clearly, the increased presence and influence of the U.S. in East Asia that would ensue is far from China’s preferred international environment.
China, similarly, would not want to draw the world into a crisis by going up against the United States for the sake of North Korea, whose regime is concerned only with its own survival. China’s leaders are mindful of the rising nationalism in its domestic politics, and so it is somewhat understandable that they are unable to offer many concessions to neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan, but that same nationalism would preclude China yielding to selfish demands from North Korea given the latter’s subservient position.
China should realize that at this point, avoiding excessive opposition to its neighbors seeking the means to defend themselves against North Korea is actually very much in its long-term interests. If Beijing were to accept South Korea’s participation in THAAD right now, it would probably serve as an expression of China’s consideration and magnanimity towards South Koreans, and that would in turn place additional pressure on North Korea. The United States may be averse to Chinese gains in soft power, but it would appreciate an escalation of pressure on North Korea. For China, this would seem to be a good move.
Tsuneo Watanabe is Senior Fellow at The Tokyo Foundation.