Recently, a U.S. proposal to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea has impacted the security calculations of Northeast Asian countries. The proposal comes in the wake of the recent North Korean hydrogen bomb test. However, while this recent test may bolster the U.S.’s argument for THAAD in order to better defend its ally, South Korea, the plan also increases the security risk and potential for conflict between the U.S. and its main rival in the region, China.
Chinese security interests
As China made clear last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), it certainly respects the right of sovereign states such as South Korea to make their own security-related decisions. However, it also maintains that these decisions must not be made in a vacuum and, specifically, that China’s security interests must also be considered when making decisions which might potentially harm China in its near abroad.
Specifically, China’s concern is that THAAD’s X-band radar capability would allow its deterrence reach to actually extend beyond North Korea and into China itself. Unlike the Former Soviet Union, which was more focused on nuclear parity with the U.S., China has always maintained a limited nuclear deterrent with respect to the U.S. As a result, it is especially sensitive to any perceived threats to undermine it.
What’s past is prologue
Also with respect to the Former Soviet Union, China sees THAAD as just the latest incarnation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Since it saw the U.S. as realizing it could not “win” a nuclear war with the Former Soviet Union because of the above-mentioned parity issues, China saw SDI as a U.S. attempt to bankrupt its Cold War rival. It did this by forcing the Soviets into huge military expenditures in order to counteract SDI, expenditures which the U.S. knew the Soviets could not afford given their fragile economy. As such, China learned from its former mentor and subsequently refuses to follow a similar path into bankruptcy.
From the Chinese perspective, the THAAD proposal is also indicative of earlier U.S. attempts to place missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to better protect its regional allies from an Iranian missile threat. Despite Russian protests that the system would impact its own deterrence capabilities and subsequent offers to let the U.S. use an alternative Former Soviet radar facility in Azerbaijan, the U.S. still persisted in its efforts. Coming on the heels of the recent nuclear deal signed with Iran, China sees the incident as an example of the U.S. dismissiveness of the security concerns of other great powers within the international system.
Economics impact security decisions
Similar to Japan, South Korea is critical to the U.S.’s rebalance to Asia. Unlike Japan, however, the U.S. sees Chinese overtures towards South Korea specifically as potentially harming the U.S.-Korean alliance. Although South Korea has island disputes with China in the same vein as Japan, Sino-Korean relations are nowhere near as acrimonious as Sino-Japanese relations. Certainly South Korea’s decision to attend China’s WWII Victory over Japan celebrations last year accentuated these U.S. concerns.
Economically, China is already South Korea’s top trading partner, similar to most countries in the region. Already a participant in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiatives, the U.S. is concerned that increased economic linkages with China will potentially make South Korea more hesitant to take any actions which might jeopardize these ties. Adding to this, South Korea has already expressed interest in possibly working with China on its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, echoing both Korea’s and China’s historical places within the ancient Silk Road. Summarily, these political and economic linkages with China give Korea’s THAAD deployment decision added import with respect to its U.S. ally.