A key responsibility of mine during my time in the Pentagon was to devise and implement U.S. defense policies and strategies related to North Korea. One unfortunate aspect of this responsibility was the repeated need to quickly develop options, in collaboration with my colleagues, to respond to North Korean ballistic missile tests. I got a lot of practice: In 2016 alone, Pyongyang conducted more than 20 such tests, despite multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting Pyongyang from carrying them out.
Just a few hours after North Korea’s most recent test sent three ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, the first elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system began to arrive in South Korea. In many ways, North Korea provided a stark reminder of why the United States and the South Korea decided to deploy THAAD: The irrefutable ballistic missile threat that North Korea poses to U.S. allies and military forces in East Asia requires a reasonable defensive adjustment to America’s regional force posture. North Korea continues to violate multiple international sanctions, its actions threaten to destabilize the entire Asia-Pacific, and South Korea and the United States have the clear right to defend themselves from such a threat.
Nevertheless, China has been consistently and vociferously against the deployment of THAAD. Beijing has expressed most of its displeasure against South Korea through a robust campaign designed to maximize pressure on Seoul to reconsider its decision. China suspended several military channels with South Korea, and sought to punish South Korea economically with a series of actions that included sanctions against several South Korean companies. Beijing’s ire has even extended to the cultural realm — South Korean TV shows and K-pop music videos, which are wildly popular among China’s youth, have been blocked from streaming in China.
Most recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that South Korea was making a mistake in deploying THAAD to the Korean peninsula and urged Seoul to reverse course. He also said that the THAAD system undermined China’s security, and, in what may be construed as a veiled threat, said that the deployment could make South Korea less secure.
China’s pressure on South Korea has been ineffective so far, and Seoul remains committed to deploying the missile defense system. Acceptance of THAAD even extends to South Korea’s liberal opposition, which has traditionally looked askance at U.S. military deployments to the peninsula. Leading liberal presidential candidate Moon Jae-in has even stated that the THAAD deployment would go forward under his administration. South Korea’s general acceptance of THAAD (though some opposition certainly remains) speaks to the tremendous threat the country faces from North Korea, as well as the continued strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance — neither of which China has been adept at addressing.
Why China opposes THAAD
Chinese officials claim that the radar system associated with THAAD, known as the Army/Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2), would give the United States a greater ability to see (and therefore defend against) potential Chinese ballistic missile launches against the American homeland. According to Beijing, this radar would serve to undermine China’s strategic deterrent and plunge the U.S-China strategic relationship into instability.
In reality, however, these fears are baseless. THAAD in the Korean Peninsula will be able to conduct only one mission: defend South Korea against a ballistic missile attack from North Korea. The only way that THAAD in the Korean Peninsula could defend against Chinese missiles would be if China decided to strike South Korea — a highly unlikely scenario.
Moreover, deploying an AN/TPY-2 radar in South Korea would not substantially enhance the ability of the United States to “see” Chinese ballistic missiles. The United States has already installed the same radar three times in East Asia — once in Guam and twice in Japan.
It should be noted that officials from China’s Foreign Ministry or political leadership have usually voiced the vast majority of Chinese objections to THAAD. The few times professional Chinese military officials have commented on THAAD, most discuss how ineffective THAAD in South Korea would be in a conflict between China and the United States. Song Zhongping, a military expert who served in China’s Second Artillery Corps (now called the Rocket Force), said that in a conflict the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could use directed-energy weapons or electronic interference against THAAD’s radar. Similarly, Peng Guangqian, a military strategist at the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, added, “In peacetime, China also has measures to counter the THAAD system, for instance, making it ‘blind,’ which is very easy. The PLA is entirely capable of doing that.”
Finally, the disingenuousness of China’s claimed fear of THAAD’s radar is demonstrated by China’s actions since the decision to deploy THAAD to South Korea. After announcing the decision, the United States sought to allay China’s concerns by repeatedly offering to brief Beijing about the technical capabilities of THAAD’s radar. China refused these briefings. If Beijing were genuinely concerned about this radar, it would stand to reason that it would want to know as much about it as possible. Repeatedly refusing briefings on the subject strongly suggests that Beijing knows about the radar and what it does, and especially what it does not do. Indeed, when the United States initially offered to brief China about THAAD in 2016, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying admitted that THAAD was “certainly not a simple technology issue” for China.
I agree. China’s strong opposition to deploying THAAD to the Korean Peninsula is not technical, but geopolitical.
China’s broader strategic objective is to gradually establish itself as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific that has the ability to drive all major decisions of consequence in the region. A critical aspect of this strategy is to circumscribe the ability of the United States to drive regional dynamics, especially in the military realm. This is especially true on the Korean Peninsula, which represents a close American alliance in very close proximity to China’s borders.
Through this lens, THAAD would be perceived not as a tactical military deployment designed to respond to a real military threat, but rather as a symbol of America’s continued strength in China’s backyard. This is why China has pushed South Korea so strongly over a military deployment that does not significantly affect China in any way. For Beijing, THAAD represents a persistent rebuke to China’s broader strategic ambitions for regional dominance.
Implications for the future
China’s strategists should know that their argument is not likely to succeed. It essentially calls on South Korea to publicly break with its American ally, which has consistently and reliably defended South Korea since the North Korean invasion in 1950, in favor of China — while offering no solutions other than sanctions, anger, and hubris. Moreover, China’s position boils down to requesting that the United States and South Korea prioritize China’s baseless security concerns about THAAD over the very real threat they face.
This dynamic does not bode well for the ability of China and the United States to work together on North Korea. If China’s leaders continue to view this dynamic in starkly zero-sum terms, and believe that any enhancement to U.S. military posture in the region is necessarily to China’s disadvantage, Washington’s ability to cooperate with Beijing will be severely limited. Moreover, China’s ability to convince South Korea to align itself with China’s interests will have to take South Korea’s own interests into account, which will immediately run counter to China’s long-standing (if grudging) support for North Korea.
Of course, cooperating to diminish the threat posed by North Korea is the best and perhaps only way to defuse this crisis. The basis for that cooperation should be obvious — neither side wants to see North Korea develop a credible nuclear capability, nor do they want to see war on the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, China’s insistence on seeing the United States as fundamentally hostile to China’s interests will likely prevent either side from cooperating in any meaningful way.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed THAAD during a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se during his recent visit to the region. Tillerson expressed the continued commitment of the United States to deploy THAAD, even in light of the ongoing president election in South Korea. “It’s my expectation that the new government in South Korea will continue to be supportive of the THAAD system,” said Tillerson, “because it is directed solely at the defense of [South Korea].” Tillerson also criticized China for its economic retaliation against South Korea as “inappropriate and troubling.”
These are good statements to make publicly, but they are by themselves insufficient. President Trump reportedly plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, and this be a critical opportunity to send a clear, focused message to China about THAAD and the true, fundamental issue at play: North Korea. Xi should hear, in no uncertain terms, that the United States sees North Korea as a significant threat to its security and that of its allies, will not accept a nuclear North Korea, and will do what it must to defend its allies and itself.
The U.S. message on THAAD should support this broader position vis-à-vis North Korea, and can do so with three points. First, deploying THAAD to the Korean peninsula should be seen as a purely defensive response to the growing threat of North Korean ballistic missiles. Second, the United States should be clear that the problem is not THAAD — the fundamental problem is North Korea, its continued belligerence, and its ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Washington and Seoul would not need THAAD if the threat of Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles were not so great. Third, the United States should be unequivocal in its commitment to work with its allies to ensure that its military posture is sufficient to defend them. This means that if North Korea continues on its course, THAAD may just be the beginning.
This issue is far from settled. While the actual deployment of THAAD to the Korean peninsula has already begun, it will take several months to be completed. In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in April, and South Korea is set to elect a new president on May 9. THAAD will certainly be a major issue influencing both events, and Tillerson will have a critical role to play in ensuring that THAAD remains on track in the turbulent weeks to come.
Photo credit: Trucks carrying components of the THAAD missile defense system at Osan Air Base in South Korea on March 6, 2017. U.S. Forces, Korea via Getty Images