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Beijing's Response to U.S.-ROK Missile Agreement: Example of China's New Diplomacy?

Jun 16, 2021

In early June, President Xi Jinping told a study group of the Chinese Communist Party that the country’s foreign communications need to promote “a narrative tone that reflects openness and confidence, yet conveys modesty and humility, in a bid to shape a reliable, admirable and respectable image of China.” Perhaps the first example of this new tone was evident in the unexpectedly mild Chinese reaction to the announcement at last month’s May 25 South Korean-U.S. presidential summit that Seoul and Washington would terminate all limits on the range and payload of South Korea’s ballistic and cruise missiles. 

Following the announcement, Xing Haiming, the PRC’s ambassador to South Korea, described the missile guidelines as a bilateral issue between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The China Daily maintained that Washington, among other considerations, sought to play South Korea “as a piece on the U.S.geopolitical chess board” against China, but concluded the stratagem would fail given that “the ROK has neither the necessary technology to develop advanced missiles nor the money or the intentions to develop a huge arsenal of missiles.” More importantly, South Koreans did not want to antagonize China as the PRC was “the main stakeholder and guarantee for regional peace, stability and development.” Even the normally pugnacious Global Times adopted a coolly analytical tone in assessing Seoul’s and Washington’s motives. “While paying attention to the development of U.S.-South Korea ties,” the paper argued that “China should also remain restrained, rational and tolerant toward South Korea.” 

The ROK-U.S. missile guidelines had existed since 1979. At the time, the United States consented to South Korean requests to acquire U.S. missile technology in return for restrictions on the weight of the payload that any ROK missile could carry as well as the range of these systems. The initial limits were severe, with their maximum distance set at 180 kilometers and their weight capped at 500 kilograms. In subsequent years, Seoul repeatedly pressed Washington to revise the limits as North Korea’s missile capabilities grew and South Korea’s dependence on U.S. missile technologies declined. 

Starting in 2001, U.S. negotiators on several occasions consented to Revised Missile Guidelines that allowed ROK systems to fly farther and carry heavier payloads, with an inverse tradeoff between distance and weight (i.e., the heavier the payload, the shorter the permitted distance the missile could fly). The ROK Agency for Defense Development responded by researching, developing, and deploying a steadily improving series of Hyunmoo ballistic and cruise missiles. 

Washington still pressed the ROK to constrain its missile-related exports to the 500kg payload and 300km range limits found in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Additionally, U.S. negotiators insisted that Seoul not develop a space launch vehicle powered by solid fuel since such a rocket could provide the basis for a multi-staged ballistic missile capable of flying thousands of kilometers. At times, these negotiations were contentious, with then ROK President Lee Myung-bak a decade ago threatening to abrogate the limits unilaterally unless Washington revised them. 

South Korea’s reasons for seeking to remove the limitations are sound. First, the ROK is in a missile race with North Korea. The DPRK has deployed thousands of missiles and artillery systems that can hit targets in South Korea. While suspending its provocative long-range missile tests in the last few years, the DPRK has continued developing and launching more advanced short-range missiles capable of attacking all of South Korea. Some of these tests have displayed novel capabilities, such as means to evade ROK missile defenses. 

South Koreans naturally want to match these advances to enhance deterrence on the Peninsula. Having the capacity to strike North Korean territory is crucial for breaking the DPRK missile "kill chain” of sensors, shooters, and command centers. By being able to destroy North Korea’s long-range missiles and their supporting infrastructure before they launch, the ROK military can limit the damage the DPRK could inflict on South Korea in a conflict. From this perspective, the ROK’s offensive missiles can bolster deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by retaliation and punishment. 

Other factors also explain the ROK quest to annul the guidelines. South Korea wants the capacity to destroy other DPRK offensive systems, such as North Korea’s diverse weapons of mass destruction and their sensor and command-and-control infrastructure preemptively before the North can employ them. The longer ranges could also allow the ROK to keep its forces further away from the DPRK’s missiles, perhaps on undetectable submarines on off-shore patrols. This enhancement would give South Korean leaders more time to respond to any DPRK missile threats, thereby decreasing pressures for a prompt retaliatory strike and increasing crisis stability on the Peninsula. 

The missile issue is also closely linked to South Korea’s pursuit of defense autonomy. This consideration also guides the country’s military-industrial policies aimed at developing an advanced indigenous defense industry. South Korean governments seek upgraded missiles to fulfill the requirements for obtaining full Operational Control (OPCON) in wartime, which has until now remained in the hands of the better-equipped U.S. military. ROK analysts additionally believe the decision to annul the guidelines will help advance South Korea’s aerospace capabilities. 

Perhaps most importantly, many South Koreans see the termination of the missile “shackles” as an essential affirmation of the Republic’s sovereign right to enjoy full and equal means of self-defense. A spokesperson for the ROK Ministry of Defense said that, “The termination of the missile guidelines reflects how the Biden administration lays importance on the ROK-U.S. alliance, and it shows Washington’s trust in South Korea in terms of national capacity, status and as a model nation for international nonproliferation.” 

In theory, the end of the guidelines will allow South Korea’s ground-based missiles to extend their range to reach targets throughout Asia, but the ROK would never employ them in this matter. South Koreans have neither the means nor the desire to wage a war with China or other countries. Even if South Korea acquired missiles that could fly as far as those of China, Russia, and the United States, the ROK lacks the nuclear warheads of these countries. Furthermore, South Korea will continue to apply MTCR limits to its missile-related exports. 

Even so, Chinese officials might have protested the end of the ROK missile limits more stridently. North Korea’s state-run media expressed umbrage at Washington’s supposed double standard of sanctioning DPRK missile developments while acquiescing at the ROK’s comparable efforts. Only a few years ago, the PRC waged an intense information and economic pressure campaign to prevent South Korea from hosting U.S. defensive missiles on its soil. After the ROK ignored PRC warnings and deployed the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, China applied unprecedented economic sanctions against the ROK, ranging from curtailing Chinese tourist visits to cutting contacts and contracts with South Korean companies. 

In the end, the PRC pressure campaign backfired by stoking South Korean resentment at Chinese interference. ROK resistance stiffened for fear of granting Beijing a veto over Seoul’s other national security policies. Countries in subsequent disputes with China, such as Australia and Japan, have responded in similar ways since then. Hopefully, the surprisingly mild response to the ROK-U.S. missile decision signifies a softer Chinese approach towards such disputes in the future.

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