With Park ousted and Trump settling into the White House, the THAAD issue is set to enter a new phase of tensions as Beijing and Washington fight for influence.
President Park Geun-hye has been formally removed from office. Missing her executive immunity, Park has been issued an arrest warrant for charges of bribery, and is facing investigation while in custody. To be sure, there remains a long way to go to fully investigate Park’s scandal. However, with the impeachment done, it is time to refocus attention on its implications. A particularly concerning issue is the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployment in South Korea by the United States that has been at the root of much regional controversy.
In brief review, the THAAD controversy involves the extension of the American missile defense umbrella to South Korea, which has been poorly received by a China that sees THAAD as a check on its own missile capabilities vis-à-vis the United States. Despite continued US and South Korean arguments that THAAD serves a purely defensive purpose against North Korea, China has been treating THAAD as a direct security threat. This has led to rising tensions in China’s relationships with both countries.
However, THAAD and the surrounding controversy had been relatively silenced following Donald Trump’s tumultuous rise to presidency.
In fact, initial announcements of THAAD deployment were met with verbal protest and rumors of retaliation from China, but little more. Tensions began to flare in earnest as the possibility of Park’s impeachment became tangible, causing relevant players to accelerate THAAD deployment. In late 2016, as Park’s scandal was in full force, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense closed a procurement deal with Lotte – a South Korean conglomerate – for the THAAD battery site. This was a hurried development given the amount of political protest against not only THAAD itself, but also its prior decision making process that excluded feedback from residents around the THAAD site.
The same sort of acceleration by the US was also apparent. Indeed, the original deployment timeline had been for around the summer of 2017. However, the US had already made the first delivery of THAAD hardware into South Korea on March 6th, and the X-band radar – the key component of THAAD responsible for missile detection – arrived soon after on March 16th. The delivery of these critical components coincided with the conclusion of the impeachment battle, as the South Korean constitutional court had formally removed Park from office that same week.
The Lotte deal and arrival of THAAD equipment pushed China – both the government and the public – beyond the realm of threats toward tangible retaliation, particularly against Lotte. As South Korea’s Yonhap news reports, there have been 43 retaliatory measures taken against South Korea, including various measures to discourage tourism in South Korea, which have already caused South Korea’s tourism industry a significant setback.
A competitive spiral: How many Chinese sticks before a carrot?
The American and Chinese responses are similar in the sense that they both seek to raise costs for South Korea to respectively retract or continue THAAD deployment. A typical bipolar competition, a raise in stakes by one side prompts the other to follow suit. At the same time, the US has the easier job of accelerating commitment on a previously made agreement, while China faces the uphill battle of coercing South Koreans into reneging on the missile defense system. Indeed, while the US’s hurried THAAD deployment has drawn increased criticism from within South Korea, it does not come close to the nationalistic animosity and resentment that Chinese economic retaliation has produced.
Furthermore, China’s mission requires a far more nuanced approach to South Korean domestic politics, as it seeks to convince South Korea’s next president to review the THAAD deal. As such, it not only needs to create an environment in which the South Korean public would support the right candidate, but also has to create enough domestic momentum in support of the actual policy review when the new president comes into office. The challenge is especially tricky given Moon Jae-in – the current leading candidate in polls – and his ambivalent stance on THAAD. This dilemma has been evident in the Chinese government’s recent attempts to rein in some of its more extreme nationalists from denouncing South Korea.
Looking forward to the May election
Of course, all this controversy is just one reason to look to the Trump-Xi summit this week. However, as it stands, the US’s ability – which it undoubtedly will exercise – to deploy THAAD prior to the presidential election in May does not mean the surrounding tension will dissipate. Rather, it means quite the opposite. China has already made countless assertions that THAAD is an unacceptable breach of its national security. Given the array of aggressive, nationalistic behavior shown by the Chinese with regards to THAAD, it is clear that China has too much riding on the tug-of-war for any fait accompli. Rather, the period leading up to the election, as well as the new South Korean president’s initial weeks in office, will be an extremely high-stakes game in which a clear, bipolar zero-sum game demands a choice by South Korea that will surely leave one of its key superpower partners alienated.