THAAD could trigger S. Korea’s unwanted involvement in conflict over Taiwan

Posted on : 2022-08-23 16:57 KST Modified on : 2022-08-23 16:57 KST
A recent survey of experts showed the that majority of respondents believed that the USFK would be deployed in case of an emergency in Taiwan
Foreign Minister Park Jin of South Korea shakes hands with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China ahead of their meeting in Qingdao, China, on Aug. 9. (courtesy MOFA)
Foreign Minister Park Jin of South Korea shakes hands with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China ahead of their meeting in Qingdao, China, on Aug. 9. (courtesy MOFA)

In the context of South Korea-China relations, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is akin to both an active and dormant volcano. In 2017, when the deployment of a THAAD battery in South Korea prompted retaliation from China, chilling ties between the two countries, South Korea’s declaration of a “three noes” policy of no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the missile defense system of the US, and no participation in a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan put the brakes on further conflict.

Yet after a period of dormancy, the THAAD issue once again shows signs of erupting. During a meeting of the foreign ministers of South Korea and China on Aug. 9, China demanded that South Korea declare a policy of “one restriction” on top of its “three noes” policy, which would place restrictions on the operation of the THAAD battery currently deployed in South Korea. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration stood its ground, stating that the THAAD system is a matter of “security sovereignty” and is not subject to discussions with China.

The South Korean government is currently hastening necessary steps for the official deployment of THAAD currently deployed on a temporary basis in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province, such as carrying out a general environmental impact assessment.

Following the foreign ministers’ meeting, an official at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that the “kernel” of the meeting was that South Korea and China “clearly agreed that the THAAD issue should not become an obstacle to the advancement of South Korea-China relations in the future.” The comment indicated that as the two countries already experienced firsthand the destructive power of the THAAD issue, the recent conflict surrounding THAAD is less likely to snowball into a larger dispute.

China assumes that the deployment of THAAD in South Korea indicates South Korea’s participation in the US’ encirclement of China. In particular, China is wary of the possibility that the THAAD battery in Seongju may hinder it from taking military action in case of a conflict in Taiwan.

Although tensions across the Taiwan Strait have escalated following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip there earlier this month, many people in South Korea are still indifferent to the situation in the island country. Experts, however, believe that the situation there warrants more attention.

On Aug. 9, when military tensions across the Taiwan Strait heightened, the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses asked 28 experts in South Korea and the US what they thought was the likelihood of the US Forces Korea (USFK) being deployed to the Taiwan Strait in an emergency. The majority of respondents stated that the USFK would be deployed in case of an emergency in Taiwan. Notably, experts projected that the likelihood of the USFK being deployed to Taiwan would increase the more serious armed conflict between Taiwan and China would be, with 19 experts predicting the USFK’s deployment in case of direct Chinese attacks on Taiwan’s main island and 21 making the same prediction in case of an all-out war between Taiwan and China.

If the USFK is deployed to Taiwan in an emergency, South Korea would become a launch base for attacking and containing China. When China conducted military drills simulating the encirclement of Taiwan on Aug. 5 in opposition to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, a U-2 reconnaissance plane belonging to the USFK reportedly flew near the Taiwan Strait. This particular aircraft has been conducting surveillance patrols against China near the Taiwan Strait, the Shandong Peninsula off the Yellow Sea, as well as Bohai Bay since 2020.

Military conflict and escalating tensions between the US and China regarding the Taiwan Strait negatively influence ties between South Korea and China as well. In his paper titled “The recent US-China military security competition and the Taiwan Strait crisis,” Chung Jae-hung, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, argued that “if armed conflict between the US and China intensifies along the Taiwan Strait and China goes on the offensive targeting the US Navy and Air Force, there’s a high chance the US may ask its allies for strategic assistance in order to supplement the insufficient military strength of its Navy and Air Force.”

Regarding the possibility of the USFK’s deployment in case of conflict on the Taiwan Strait, South Korean Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup said during a press conference on Aug. 11, “If the US is in such an urgent situation, decisions will be made with respect regarding our public’s concern.” He added, “There’s no need for us to worry excessively.”

Lee’s explanation is based on a 2006 joint statement between the South Korean and US governments, which announced the two countries’ agreement on the “strategic flexibility” of the USFK. The statement read, “The US respects the ROK position that it shall not be involved in a regional conflict in Northeast Asia against the will of the Korean people.”

“Based on the 2006 South Korea-US joint statement on strategic flexibility, we should come up with a method to exercise sovereign control over US military power that utilizes our territory, so that we do not get involved in a military conflict between the US and China against our will,” said Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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