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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 Chinese Foreign Ministry on Sunday summoned the South Korean ambassador to register its displeasure with Seoul entering into talks with the U.S. regarding the potential deployment of THAAD to the Korean Peninsula.
However, their calls for “calm” following North Korea’s defiance of the international community and proliferation of technology that threatens the South appear to be finding less and less of a reception in Seoul.
South Korea and the United States announced on Sunday that they would enter into official discussions over the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles of short, medium or long range. The joint announcement came just hours after the North successfully put a satellite into orbit, an act forbidden under UN resolutions as it is considered a cover for a test of the North’s long-range missile technology.
The U.S. has been working to convince the South to adapt THAAD for years but Beijing – along with Moscow – has consistently opposed the deployment, calling THAAD a threat to China.
‘In military terms, it only affects China if China wants to fire missiles upon South Korea’
However, NK News director of intelligence John Grisafi said that THAAD represents no practical danger to China, as it destroys incoming missiles through impact rather than explosives.
“It’s not an offensive weapon,” he said. “In military terms, it only affects China if China wants to fire missiles upon South Korea.”
Because THAAD is designed to intercept missiles in their terminal phase, Grisafi said, THAAD batteries deployed in South Korea wouldn’t even be useful in defending other countries, such as Japan, from Chinese missiles.
China’s opposition, he said, is for a different reason.
“THAAD in Korea increases Seoul’s reliance on the U.S.,” Grisafi said. “Plus, China likely doubts Seoul’s claim that THAAD is only because of North Korea. They likely see deployment of THAAD and other such systems which are integrated in the U.S. missile defense network as part of U.S. attempts to strengthen the American presence in East Asia and contain China.”
No final decision has yet been made on THAAD deployment to South Korea, but should Seoul go ahead with deploying a THAAD battery or batteries, another expert said China may not have a clear option for retaliating.
“Short-term, we’re likely to see a (Chinese) diplomatic protest,” said Sheena Greitens of the Brookings Institution. “As the discussions get underway, I’d expect China to publicly criticize a potential THAAD deployment as unhelpful for stability in the region.
“But I think part of why Beijing has been so anxious about this is that if South Korea adopts THAAD, it’s unclear what China’s subsequent best move is. Unlike some of the other countermeasures South Korea could take, THAAD imposes real costs on China, and if Seoul does decide to go ahead, Beijing’s options in response are limited.”
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and Seoul is Beijing’s fourth largest, and last year the two countries entered into a historic bilateral free trade agreement. This was just one of the ways in which China’s influence over Seoul had been seen as growing, given the evident closeness of presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, and Xi’s relative coldness toward Kim Jong Un.
However, Seoul appears to be growing impatient with China’s unwillingness to take stricter measures with the North. One month after the North’s fourth nuclear test the UN Security Council has yet to sanction Pyongyang, largely because Beijing continues to differ from Washington and Seoul over the severity of proposed sanctions. While China insists it does favor sanctions and has condemned both the nuclear test and the satellite launch, the difference in how Beijing and Seoul have spoken of measures to be taken is telling: While Seoul has spoken in favor of “bone-numbing” measures against the North, China continues to warn against “escalation of tensions.”
One South Korea-based expert said that China, through its hands-off approach to the North, has squandered its chances to make the improvement in relations with South Korea last, and can look forward to not only THAAD deployment but a very pro-U.S. president emerging from the ruling Saenuri Party in next year’s elections.
“Too many South Koreans already thought (Park) was toadying to Xi, and now she’s got two (North Korean) tests in a month to show for her efforts and nothing from China beyond recycled, do-nothing boilerplate about ‘everyone keeping calm,’” said Robert Kelly of Pusan National University. “I’d imagine (Park) is rightfully furious. There’s no way she’ll go back to China now, and no one in next year’s Saenuri primary will endorse such a pro-Sinic stance after this humiliation.
“Righties have been saying for awhile that Xi is a boorish nationalist convinced of China’s right to regional hegemony, rather than cooperation. This sure looks like that.”