Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud during the closing ceremony of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
All Chinese group tours of South Korea were suspended as of Mar. 15. While the decision had been expected, it’s still a serious sign that China’s retaliation for the deployment of a THAAD missile defense system with US Forces Korea is stretching into the long-term with institutional backing. It’s a situation we cannot afford to neglect. Hopefully, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour of South Korea, China, and Japan, which started the same day, will be a first step toward finding a solution.
It’s been said before, but China’s retaliatory measures are petty and unsuited to a country that professes to be a great power. It’s also hegemonic, targeting relatively weaker South Korea instead of the US, which is the primary actor behind the THAAD deployment. Certainly it harms the reciprocity and cooperation that have been the core spirit of relations between Seoul and Beijing as they mark their 25th anniversary. If the current situation continues, China is certain to suffer damage of its own. This kind of self-defeating extortion is going to continue acting as a burden on bilateral ties.
China sees the THAAD deployment as infringing upon its own strategic interests. It thinks that the US is pushing THAAD as part of a larger system of East Asian missile defense, and that it will result in much greater trilateral military and security cooperation with South Korea and Japan. From the perspective of the US-China battle for dominance, such concerns are not unwarranted. It’s something Washington is going to need to give Beijing itself an answer on itself. The US government, for its part, has said there is no chance of the THAAD deployment decision changing when a new administration comes into office in South Korea. It is problematic, however, to continue pushing the deployment without addressing China’s growing concerns. With Tillerson’s China visit and the upcoming summit early next month, the two countries are going to need to suggest some solutions for the THAAD conflict.
Seoul has claimed that the THAAD deployment is unavoidable if we are to respond to the North Korean nuclear and missile threats. It’s a self-serving position: not only is the system ineffective - with the entire greater Seoul area falling outside its defense range - but it’s also very likely to trigger objections from Beijing and Pyongyang that make the nuclear issue even worse. We also need to think about the problems it will cause if the deployment intensifies antagonisms between the US and China. Additionally, the THAAD deployment decision was made hastily and without rational procedure by a president, Park Geun-hye, who has now been impeached. There certainly is no shortage of grounds for the next administration to reconsider it.
Washington and Beijing need to take responsibility for the THAAD conflict and work on finding a solution - especially if they hope to solve the even more important North Korean nuclear issue.
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