China and Russia have condemned the plan announced by Washington and Seoul to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea in response to North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, charging that deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would harm security in Northeast Asia. While deployment of the system — designed to intercept ballistic missiles while they are still at a high altitude — is supposedly aimed at countering Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats, Beijing and Moscow argue that it would pose a threat to their own national security.
Instead of ratcheting up tensions over the missile defense system, countries with a stake in the region should focus on efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs — a common source of concern for regional security. They need to realize that a schism over deployment of the THAAD system will only benefit North Korea in its attempt to drive a wedge in the international regime of sanctions imposed on the reclusive state over its missile and nuclear tests.
Last week, North Korea fired three short- and medium-range ballistic missiles — two of them reportedly flying 500 to 600 km before falling into the Sea of Japan — in what is believed intended as a show of force in defiance of the plan unveiled earlier this month for deployment of the THAAD system at a military base in the southern South Korean town of Seongju, as well as an attempt to fuel the divide between the United States and South Korea on one hand and China and Russia on the other over the missile defense system. Japan has expressed its support of the THAAD deployment in South Korea.
There are also reports that North Korean regime of its leader Kim Jong Un is preparing yet another nuclear weapons test as early as by the end of this month — the fifth since 2006 and following the last one in January that earned Pyongyang more sanctions under a new U.N. Security Council resolution — as part of its response to the THAAD deployment plan.
Both China and Russia argue that the U.S. intention behind deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea, made up of anti-missile intercepter and radar units, is to monitor their own military deployments — a charge denied by South Korea — and call for withdrawal of the plan, which they say will ruin the region’s strategic balance. Further provocative acts by North Korea may provide more ammunition for Beijing and Moscow to criticize the U.S. and South Korean decision that their move is indeed exacerbating tensions in the region.
China needs to see that South Korea went ahead with talks with the U.S. for deployment of the THAAD system after being reluctant for some time, in the vain hope that Beijing, as Pyongyang’s sole diplomatic ally, would use its influence to get Kim’s regime to give up its nuclear weapons development — reportedly a key reason for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to approach China for closer ties in recent years. Seoul agreed to the formal talks with the U.S. for THAAD deployment after stronger international sanctions did not deter Pyongyang from pursuing its ballistic missile and nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. and South Korea have tried to allay concerns of other countries in the region over the planned deployment, saying the system will only be targeted at potential attacks from North Korea.”When the THAAD system is deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it will be focused solely on North Korean nuclear and missile threats and would not be directed toward any third-party nations,” said a statement by the two countries. China remains unhappy. A meeting between Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang did not take place when they both attended the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Ulaanbaatar in mid-July. Concerns linger in South Korea that China may resort to economic retaliation, for example by imposing higher tariffs on its imports.
Both China and Russia are at odds with the U.S. and its allies over other issues — Beijing over its maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis. The friction over the planned missile defense system, if left to fester, could ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and the two major powers even further, which, along with the crack in Beijing-Seoul relations, would all be welcomed by North Korea as Kim’s regime seeks to get around international pressure to pursue its nuclear and missile programs.
Cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan in dealing with North Korea is important but won’t be enough to effectively stop Pyongyang’s provocative acts. Diplomatic efforts are needed to prevent differences with China and Russia on other problems from stifling international measures — in which all these countries play crucial parts — to halt North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and Japan needs to seize every diplomatic opportunity to do its share of the work.