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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The potential deployment of a U.S.-led missile defense system in South Korea, ostensibly to counteract the North’s missile programs, is evidently still cause for concern in China.
Though it has not been formally requested of South Korea, Washington has encouraged it allies to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, a defensive system that would greatly enhance South Korea’s range in defending against ballistic missile launches. The U.S. has pushed for an integrated missile defense system among its allies, but compared to others – such as Japan – South Korea has shown greater hesitance regarding full implementation of THAAD as China, as well as Russia, have objected to its presence.
The latest sign of these objections comes from China’s Global Post, a state-run newspaper that recently published an Op-Ed from Li Kaisheng of the Institute of International Relations of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. In it Li noted that THAAD’s defensive capabilities would give it a range far exceeding what would be necessary to defend against North Korean missiles.
Its deployment on the Korean Peninsula, Li wrote, would “undermine the bottom line” of Beijing-Seoul relations.
On Saturday, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan relayed a similar sentiment to his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo, the first time the issue had been raised during their bilateral defense talks.
One Western observer said China’s concerns were sensible.
“Just as the Russians realize that U.S. missile defense deployment in Europe, ostensibly to counter Iran, is really aimed at them, so too does China know that North Korea is being used as a pretext,” said Tim Beal of Victoria University of Wellington. “The U.S. doesn’t need to spend a lot of money on defense against countries which have little or no long-range missile capacity and which are, in any case, exceedingly vulnerable to overwhelming American military power. Missile defense really only makes sense in relation to major adversaries such as China, and Russia.”
THAAD deployment, Beal said would not only damage China and South Korea’s relationship, but potentially make South Korea a target should tensions between China and the U.S. escalate.
However, Andrew Scobell of the RAND Corporation said that South Korea had to balance its security interests, and could likely join the THAAD network without consequences from Beijing.
“While South Korea does not want to unnecessarily antagonize China there is also great concern about improving defenses against North Korean threats,” he said. “It’s a clear case of the security dilemma — one country being threatened by another country’s efforts to better defense itself.
“Despite China being unhappy about this possibility, there is not much China would likely be prepared to do to register its displeasure beyond harsh rhetoric. Moreover, Seoul can insist it was Washington’s idea and pass the buck.”
Officially South Korea has stated that it has no intent to join THAAD, and has instead leaned toward a domestically produced defense system. While this could eventually benefit the nation in terms of R&D, while making it less dependant on Washington – and could still potentially be interoperable with the U.S.’s system – there would be a gap between when the THAAD system would be available and when the hypothetical domestically produced system could be deployed.
During a visit to Seoul on Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken noted China’s objections to its deployment there, but said that THAAD was “purely defensive” and aimed exclusively at deterring North Korea, and said that talk of its deployment was “premature.”