SEOUL–Seoul’s onetime honeymoon relations with Beijing are rapidly cooling in the wake of its decision to deploy US anti-missile defense system called THAAD or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The anti-missile shield is so effective and powerful in killing incoming enemy projectiles, and spotting enemy missiles up to 2,000 km away through its X-Band radar system that both China and Russia consider it a strategic threat.
Deploying it close to China’s borders on the South Korean soil, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has argued, “far exceeds the Korean peninsula’s defense needs.” China has “reasons and rights to question the motive behind the move of deploying such system” so close to China, Wang asserted, claiming the US should not “harm other countries’ legitimate security interests” in the name of defending its own security.
Moscow, similarly mixing its own strategic interests with warnings against the US move, declared placing THAAD system will only “destabilize” the situation on the Korean peninsula.
With Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang up against Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, a new picture of alliance is shaping up.
For years now, Seoul and Washington have been nervously watching North Korea, China’s only ally and its client state, totally focused on developing significant nuclear arsenal as well as a variety of ballistic missiles. After years of deliberation, especially over the last five months of intense consultation, Washington and Seoul have agreed to deploy a battery of THAAD missiles against Pyongyang’s provocations.
In the past ten years, North Korea has conducted four rounds of underground nuclear tests, two of them in the last five years. The fourth test was conducted in January 2016, and this was followed by the launching of intermediate range ballistic missile Musudan class in February.
The decision on THAAD was swiftly reached after what appeared to be the successful launching of an intermediate range missile by North Korea last month, which US and South Korean officials said had a range of 4,000 km, a distance enough of reaching US military base on Guam. It was the fifth or six ballistic missile test this year, with the last one launched from a submarine, being fired on July 9, right after the day of the announcement on THAAD deployment.
Historically, China has considered North Korea useful as a buffer against the oceanic powers of the United States and Japan. In recent years, although it participates in the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the Pyongyang regime for its reckless missile and atomic bomb tests, it uses every opportunity to bypass them when the regime’s lifeline is at stake. China essentially takes a hands-off attitude as far as the North’s missile or nuclear program is concerned. Indeed, China wants Seoul and Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang on the basis of accepting the existing nuclear arsenal, even though it claims to endorse the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
In agreeing to deploy the THAAD system, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is re-balancing the peninsula’s strategic equation. After three years of diplomatic honeymoon with Xi Jinping’s China, she is seeking to create a new strategic balance on the peninsula.
“The decision on THAAD is a vital measure to consolidate our national survival,” she told the nation on July 11, dismissing opposition parties’ contention that she ought to consider the economic impact and heightened danger from North Korea. Park is ending Seoul’s policy of depending on Beijing’s good office in curbing the North’s nuclear ambition. With that also ends the policy of Seoul-Beijing entente.
Beijing is clearly alarmed by the new strategic equation. Its attempt to pressure Seoul to change course on THAAD decision will not work. In addition to propaganda campaign calling for economic retaliation against South Korea, Chinese officials also issue thinly veiled threat that Seoul, by allowing THAAD on its soil, opens itself to unmentioned retaliation from China.
Korean business community remains concerned over the impact the new security environment could have on economic front; their bilateral trade totaled $227 billion in 2015, a quarter of Seoul’s global trade volume.
It would be hard for China to carry out its threat, given the fact that most of South Korean exports and investments consist of parts and components supply chain that directly feeds China’s own export industries. That does not mean that Korean business community is unaware of the stiff price in economic interests it has to pay.
“Like Japan, we would eventually need to shift our market focus away from China,” says one business executive with links to China, asking not to be identified. The realization to ease out is there, to be sure.
It would be a different story politically. China can use its North Korean card against Seoul and Washington by refusing to cooperate in denuclearizing Pyongyang. But that would be a short-term calculation, not helpful in protecting the regime against US-South Korean military retaliation in case of another serious provocation.
In geopolitical terms, THAAD deployment does pose some significant challenges to China under the present strategic environment. It comes at a time when China is facing a region-wide encirclement over its sweeping territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
China’s assertive expansionism has alarmed the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to close ranks. Not only is ASEAN closing ranks, India is joining in beefing up its sea power. Territorial disputes with China, and Beijing’s opportunistic posture on North Korea’s belligerence have helped put Japan’s conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closer to amending the postwar pacifist constitution.
The THAAD deployment thus opens yet another strategic front for China, this time on its continental northeastern region right next to North Korea. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, like his late father and grandfather, has scant concern for China’s geopolitical interests.
It has been Kim’s tactic to ignore China’s concern, rightfully believing that China has no recourse but to keep his regime alive for its buffer value. Now China faces the likelihood of North Korea facing retaliation for its missile provocations, as soon as THAAD system is in store, probably next year.
Pyongyang has deployed over a thousand short and medium range ballistic missiles along the 155-mile border, some of them capable of hitting parts of Japan. This is why Abe has quickly welcomed the THAAD deployment in South Korea.
With the likelihood of North Korea being punished for its missile provocations increasing, China will have to ponder and recalculate the cost of coddling its regime next door.
The US-South Korean decision to deploy THAAD represents a serious setback for Xi’s policy on North Korea. He has nothing but his own failure to rein in Pyongyang for this strategic step.
Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. He also was the Review’s Taipei bureau chief.
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