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Foreign Policy

South Korea’s Ongoing THAAD Debate and Sino-U.S. Rivalry

Sep 02 , 2016
  • Darcie Draudt

    non-resident James A. Kelly Korean Studies fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS

In early July, South Korea decided to allow the United States to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The United States has been seeking to link its ally into a broader missile defense system against North Korean missiles, but South Korea had been slow to enter formal discussions due to vociferous Chinese objection to the system.

There is still no consensus on the technical scope of the THAAD battery due to its radar ranges, and its effect on the security environment is equally divisive. Many U.S. analysts contend that this defense systems upgrade is merely defensive and aids U.S. protection of the security interests of itself and its allies, and that the technical limitations of the system make it unable to target Russia or China. As U.S. analysts have argued, it is actually counter to Chinese interests to turn cold on South Korea, when Beijing needs a friendly peninsula in its backyard.

Chinese analysts, on the other hand, argue that THAAD cannot deal with current or potential North Korean threats. They contend that the real purpose of the radar is to keep China (and Russia) under U.S. surveillance and even potentially form the practical foundations of a trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance. In addition to expediting further weapons development in North Korea, Chinese analysts suggest THAAD will drive the wedge between the two Koreas further, decreasing the possibility of reunification. Moreover, they warn of the continued damage that THAAD will cause to the South Korea’s relationships with China and Russia.

At the heart of this issue is the difference in how China and the United States view the role of South Korea and decisions related to the security and stability of the peninsula. Whereas the United States and South Korea see THAAD as a tactical bulwark against the growing credibility of a North Korean nuclear threat, China sees THAAD as a strategic move on the part of the United States, part of a larger pattern of containment.

For its part, Seoul has been reticent to make any statements on China’s posture elsewhere in the region. This has been most noticeable in its complicated balancing act with ongoing maritime territorial conflicts involving China. South Korea needs good relations with China for two main reasons, and shies away from pushing Beijing in areas it sees as not directly related to its own security or dealings with North Korea.

First, China has become an immensely important country for South Korea’s economic well-being: China surpassed Japan to become South Korea’s second largest trading partner, after the United States, since the fourth quarter of last year. Second, South Korea needs Beijing’s diplomatic weight vis-à-vis North Korea, both in dealing with Pyongyang now and in the event of any changes on the Korean peninsula, such as reunification. China’s apparent downgrade of relations with North Korea from “special” to “normal” relations in 2013 makes Seoul’s courting of Beijing even more viable.

South Korean officials maintain that the THAAD issue is a bilateral one pertaining exclusively to U.S.-ROK defensive capabilities to meet or deter a North Korean attack and that the decision to deploy THAAD should not include China. Moreover, now that the decision to deploy THAAD on South Korean soil has been made, many South Koreans have suggested that the issue has become an area of domestic debate just as much as it is an alliance one (alliance concerns in South Korea historically have been considered as much of a domestic issue as a foreign policy one).

In South Korea, the decision to deploy THAAD and the selection of the Seongju County in southeastern South Korea has provided new kindling wood to the hot domestic debate over the process and criteria of the final decision. In a July poll conducted by South Korean polling service STA, 45.8 percent of respondents believed that THAAD deployment will “hinder the national interest by reducing military effectiveness and aggravating conflict with China and Russia.”

This is a bit of a swing from earlier this year—following the fourth North Korean nuclear test—when a poll from the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies reported that 74 percent of respondents favored deployment of THAAD. A July 13 Real Meter survey put the level of support at 44.2 percent. But an early August Gallup Korea poll placed support for THAAD at 56 percent. What this shows us is that South Korean opinion about THAAD is extremely sensitive to the perception of the North Korean threat.

The July STA poll also showed that the majority of South Korean respondents—60.2 percent—believe to some degree that what seemed to be a rushed announcement regarding THAAD deployment was due to U.S. pressure. Part of this sentiment links to a much broader and deeper debate among South Koreans on the role of the U.S. alliance. This debate, which once was thought to cut along party affiliation lines, is actually much more nuanced in its divisiveness.

At a sideline meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and at the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 25, Minister Wang expressed regret over the decision, citing the THAAD decision as, “[undermining] the foundations of trust between the two countries” and asked Minister Yun how South Korea would work to protect its bilateral relations with China. Last week [on July 24], Minister Wang asked South Korea to rescind its plans to deploy THAAD, suggesting it will have a lasting effect on Sino-South Korean relations.

The exchange is symptomatic of a much bigger issue, as South Korea continues to negotiate its place between China and the United States. As Dingding Chen of Jinan University points out, even though the China-South Korea relationship will not completely sour over this issue, the THAAD debate is a reminder of the longstanding structural tensions between the two countries.

Now that the decision, as well as site selection, have been made, reversal of the THAAD decision is unlikely. Seoul will not want to look weak, particularly as North Korea continues to develop its ballistic missile capabilities. And Beijing has few options for directly influencing THAAD deployment.

Despite any diplomatic ambiguities, South Korea’s strategic decision in regards to the Sino-U.S. rivalry has already been made in favor of its long-standing ally, the United States. The THAAD decision and its aftermath makes it clear where South Korea stands in Northeast Asia. South Korea will need to negotiate its relationship between its strongest ally and its former (and arguably current) regional suzerain. However, these two great powers will also need to recalibrate their expectations of South Korea. Rather than serving as an important bridge, a cornered South Korea will be a difficult partner for both.

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