[News analysis] Why China is so wary of S. Korea's THAAD anti-missile system

Posted on : 2022-08-12 17:21 KST Modified on : 2022-08-12 17:21 KST
What China fears more than THAAD is the entry of American mid-range missiles into the area immediately surrounding it
US Forces Korea transports military equipment presumed to be the THAAD anti-missile defense system to their base in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 29, 2020. (courtesy Soseong Situation Room)
US Forces Korea transports military equipment presumed to be the THAAD anti-missile defense system to their base in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province, on May 29, 2020. (courtesy Soseong Situation Room)

China has dramatically increased pressure on South Korea this week, making new demands it had never officially raised before regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue. The scope and intensity of US-China strategic competition look different from what they did in 2016 and 2017, around the time THAAD was deployed in South Korea; as a result, there are concerns that the issue could become a “hot potato” that, like the Taiwan issue, completely shakes up the state of affairs in East Asia.

The THAAD issue, which had quieted down after the Moon Jae-in administration declared its “three noes” in October 2017, came to the fore during South Korea’s most recent presidential election. Yoon Suk-yeol, at the time the presidential candidate for the People Power Party, posted a three-word message on Facebook in late January that read: “Additional THAAD deployment.”

In July 2016, the Park Geun-hye government decided to deploy THAAD, an anti-ballistic missile defense system, and the system was first deployed at the American military base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in April 2017. The issue caused severe shockwaves in the South Korea-China relationship, with China slapping a slew of economic retribution measures on South Korea.

Following Moon Jae-in’s rise to power in May 2017, his administration mended ties with China by announcing the so-called “three noes” in October of that year: no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the US’ missile defense network and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.

When Yoon came into office on the back of a campaign promise for additional deployment of THAAD, the “three noes” issues again rose to the fore. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, during a regular briefing on July 27 stated, “A commitment made should be a commitment kept despite change of government,” and asked that Yoon continue his predecessor’s policy line on THAAD.

On Wednesday, the day after the first dialogue between South Korea and China’s top diplomats, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin argued that the South Korean government had “officially announced its policy of ‘three nos and one restriction.’” In short, he presented a new claim that, apart from the three noes, South Korea had promised a restriction on the use of the system, which is currently deployed with US forces in South Korea.

China is taking a high-handed approach to demand South Korea’s adherence to the three noes and one restriction. Foreign Minister Wang Yi presented a list of five demands in a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on Tuesday. The second demand was for the commitment to “good neighborliness and friendship” and accommodation of each other’s “major concerns.” Wang’s mention of “major concerns” refers to the three noes.

The major reason China is making outrageous demands on the THAAD issue that run counter to normal diplomatic practices is because of military and national security concerns. China has long characterized THAAD as a weapons system deployed in South Korea by the US that is aimed at China. South Korea has responded that THAAD has been deployed to block North Korean missiles, but China has not accepted this explanation.

The Global Times, a Chinese state-run media outlet, characterized THAAD in an editorial published Tuesday as “a wedge Washington is trying to drive into Northeast Asia, to disturb the region so it can profit from the conflicts.” It went on to say, “China has never told South Korea how to make ‘friends,’ but South Korea should never accept a knife handed by its ‘friends.’” China believes that the AN/TPY-2 radar used in the THAAD system could be used to monitor Chinese military activities in the eastern and northeastern parts of its country.

China is also concerned that if additional THAAD deployments are permitted, it could lead to the deployment of similar capabilities to the so-called first island chain that stretches from Okinawa to the Korean Peninsula. What China fears more than THAAD, a defense system, is the entry of American mid-range missiles into this area.

In August 2019, the US finalized its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty it had signed with the former USSR. That move allowed the Americans to possess short and mid-range missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Once American development of the missiles is complete, they could be deployed to Okinawa and other areas on the front line of the power struggle between the US and China. Considering Okinawa’s proximity to Taiwan, such a development would be a nightmare scenario from the Chinese perspective.

That being said, experts believe that North Korea has bolstered its missile capabilities, meaning that THAAD’s usefulness has fallen compared to 2017 when it was first deployed.

Following the failure of nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea in February 2019, the North Koreans have repeatedly fired missiles with unusual trajectories referred to as the “North Korean Iskander” (KN-23) and the “North Korean ATACMS” (KN-24). North Korea fired off a Hwasong-8 in September of last year and another missile this January, both of which it claimed to be hypersonic missiles. These missiles, which feature unusual trajectories and fly at low altitudes, are not easy to shoot down with THAAD, which can only down missiles at an altitude of 40-150 km.

The Chinese government’s fuss appears aimed at putting a strong check on the new South Korean government. Since entering the presidency, Yoon has displayed a focus on strengthening the US-South Korean alliance. Given its competition with the US in the political, economic, diplomatic and military spheres, China feels it must prevent the South Korean conservative government from leaning too much to the side of the Americans. Another issue is that China does have a right to speak on the THAAD issue because there are aspects of THAAD that endanger Chinese security interests, albeit its pretext for so blatantly opposing the defense system is weak. Moreover, given that China successfully forced South Korea to yield in the past through a single round of conflict, it could use the specter of such conflict to strongly check South Korea’s approaches toward the US.

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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