The missile defense issue featured prominently during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visits to South Korea and China. In his comments to some U.S. troops and diplomats in Seoul, Kerry confirmed that the United States was considering deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to counter North Korean missiles. The THAAD is more capable than the South Korea’s current missile defense systems, having a longer range and better sensors, which makes it controversial in Beijing. Since the Chinese government has launched a sustained campaign against its deployment, the issue likely arose in Kerry’s subsequent meetings in Beijing with Chinese officials during their discussions on Korea.
In public, Chinese government representatives have expressed mostly general concerns about how a THAAD deployment in South Korea might threaten strategic stability. For example, last year, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said that, “We believe that the deployment of an anti-missile system in this region will not help maintain stability and strategic balance in this region.” Chinese scholars have joined others in questioning the value of South Korea’s having a costly high-altitude system when North Korea can attack South Korea with a range of short-range missiles and artillery pieces as well as through other means.
Unofficial Chinese comments and reactions have been more pointed and negative. Some Chinese warn that the move could provoke Pyongyang into accelerating its offensive missile buildup and other arms programs. Wang Fan, a professor of international affairs at China Foreign Affairs University, observed that, “On the one hand, you want North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons; but on the other hand, you are making it more insecure.” Some Chinese worry that THAAD’s arrival in South Korea would further weaken Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang since North Koreans would fault Chinese diplomacy for failing to prevent this deployment.
But other Chinese concerns fall closer to home. In particular, many Chinese writers have claimed that a U.S.-controlled THAAD system in South Korea would make it easier for the United States to threaten China’s own ballistic missiles—if not directly with the system’s few interceptor rockets, than by having access to a powerful missile defense radar so close to Chinese territory. China relies on a large number and variety of missiles to deter foreign aggression, threaten other countries, and keep foreign forces away from China’s shores with asymmetric anti-access and area-denial capabilities. Regarding THAAD, the main worry is how the system, combined with other U.S. capabilities, could threaten China’s limited number of Intercontinental-Range Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States.
Chinese scholars have openly cited general worries about how U.S. missile defenses, along with improving U.S. intelligence and precision strike capabilities, could make it easier to target China’s small number of ICBMs. The Chinese government has long sought to make its nuclear forces less vulnerable to foreign preemption by placing them in underground tunnels or on mobile launchers. More recently, China appears to have invested in building a less vulnerable strategic submarine fleet and begun placing more than one warhead on some of its longer-range missiles to make them more likely to overcome U.S. missile defenses.
Some Chinese see the United States as exploiting the missile threat from North Korea to augment U.S. defenses against China. Regarding THAAD, they claim that U.S. diplomats are pressing South Korea to accept the system as a contribution to their joint defense against the North, while aiming to integrate the system into the comprehensive global missile shield that the United States is constructing in other regions besides North America.
Nonetheless, the Chinese concerns about THAAD appear at best misplaced and at worst misleading and hypocritical. The THAAD interceptors are located too far from China’s interior, and fly too slowly, to hit a Chinese ICBM. Although the THAAD system has good radars, the United States is constantly monitoring China with its powerful intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The THAAD system would add little to what the Pentagon already acquires about China’s missile program from its space satellites, air patrols, and other sources.
If anything, the Chinese pressure on South Korea to eschew THAAD has made it more difficult for the South Korean government to do so by making the issue a question of national autonomy. Although Seoul wants collaborate with Beijing against North Korean threats and develop mutual economic and diplomatic ties, South Koreans stubbornly resist foreign demands that compromise their national independence and security in the face of a clear foreign threat.
Despite Chinese and U.S. opposition, North Korea has developed a powerful portfolio of missiles aimed at South Korea and its allies. The past two decades has seen unrelenting North Korean missile research and tests that have allowed the North to develop missiles that can fly increasingly farther and more accurately. The North is now trying to design nuclear warheads light enough for its missiles to carry as far as the United States. It is also developing more mobile systems, to include submarine-launched as well as road mobile systems. Meanwhile, China has declared that it has also been testing a mid-course missile defense system, which Chinese experts have explicitly compared to THAAD.
The sustained Chinese campaign of pressure against South Korea not to deploy THAAD, despite the system’s importance to South Korea’s security and inability to threaten China’s nuclear deterrent, has led some U.S. officials to see Chinese pressure as a means of weakening the ROK-U.S. defense alliance. For example, on May 19, Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, told a security seminar that, “I think part of what China is trying to do is create a wedge in the U.S. alliance system in the region” [http://www.globalpost.com/article/6554153/2015/05/19/china-trying-use-thaad-issue-create-wedge-us-korea-alliance-senior-us] The alliance has been evolving into a more equal partnership in which both countries contribute to their mutual security. The deployment of advanced missile defenses in South Korea would better protect both South Koreans and U.S. military forces from North Korean missiles.
The THAAD system could also help intercept North Korean missiles aimed at Japan, whose support would be crucial for helping the United States defend South Korea from Northern aggression. U.S. forces based in Japan would support the defenders directly and also help U.S. military reinforcements based outside Asia move to South Korea. Japanese officials have noted that Beijing also pressed them a decade ago to avoid supporting the U.S. missile defense program, but Tokyo’s defiance eventually led China to relax its campaign and has since led to a deep Japanese-U.S. BMD partnership that has helped revitalize their alliance. Conversely, a refusal by Seoul to deploy a system that both Washington and Tokyo consider as critical for their own missile defenses would further strain their trilateral partnership.
Secretary Kerry backtracked from his remarks in Seoul and repeated the common line heard in both Seoul and Washington that neither country has made a decision or even begun formal consultations regarding a possible THAAD development in South Korea. Nonetheless, the THAAD issue will likely remain a prominent agenda item of the upcoming visits of both President Xi Jinping and President Park Geun-hye to Washington. U.S. leaders should take advantage of these trips to launch a sustained, high-level discussion on how best to manage the North Korean missile problem that is driving the THAAD question.