The launch of a US High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor. Photo: AFP
The launch of a US High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor. Photo: AFP

China and Russia would consider joint countermeasures against the United States’ planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor system in South Korea. The announcement was made by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov on January 12, after a bilateral security meeting in Moscow.

In the view of both countries, the THAAD platform poses a security threat to their own national interests, as well as to the overall strategic balance in the region. Their argument is that the X-band radar, which is part of this US-developed anti-missile apparatus, has a range extending far beyond the Korean peninsula into the Chinese and Russian territories. THAAD’s X-band radar could in fact be used as an early-warning tool against China’s and Russia’s strategic ballistic projectiles, thus undermining their respective deterrence forces.

Washington and Seoul keep repeating that the THAAD system will be stationed on the Korean peninsula only in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, while it will be not operated against third countries. After all, they say, X-band radars are already fielded in Japan and Guam.

One THAAD battery should be placed on South Korean soil by the end of the year, precisely in the southeastern county of Seongju. Tokyo is also interested in acquiring the THAAD system. The Japanese government wants to add it to its land-based PAC-3 Patriot missiles and shipborne SM-3 interceptors, so as to create a three-tier defense barrier against any potential enemy, not least against North Korea.

Boosting military coordination

Apart from a generic reference to the reinforcement of communication and coordination efforts to jointly cope with the security challenges in Northeast Asia, neither Kong nor Morgulov spelt out specifics about the possible countermeasures their government would work on to tackle THAAD deployment in South Korea.

China and Russia held an anti-missile drill last May and should stage another one this year; but they have room to lift their declared anti-THAAD cooperation to a higher level.

Russia could in fact help China beef up its arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles to try to pierce the US missile defense shield in the Western Pacific. Then, they could team up to develop a common electronic platform to jam THAAD’s X-band radar. Furthermore, they could coordinate the dispatch of strategic nuclear submarines to the Pacific Ocean to conceal their strategic deterrence assets.

Sino-Russian vulnerabilities

What the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear certainly cannot do is to automatically replicate in East Asia the steps that Moscow has so far taken to counter the US and US-related missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.

Last November, Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Russian Upper House Defense Committee, stressed that Iskander projectiles and S-400 surface-to-air missiles had been deployed in Kaliningrad – a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania – to retaliate against the so-called Phased Adaptive Approach initiative, outgoing US president Barack Obama’s plan to shield Europe with an extensive missile defense system.

But both short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles and the S-400 air defense system (which has fire range of 400 kilometer and radar range of 600 kilometer) seem unfit to penetrate the US land-and sea-based defense measures in East Asia. This aim could be better reached by Russian-made anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine Kalibr cruise missiles, which have a range of over 1,500 kilometer and the Kremlin’s military first used in Syria in October 2015.

Still, for Beijing and Moscow to put up a coherent military coordination against the American anti-ballistic missile system in East Asia, they cannot rule out forging a more deepened level of cooperation, equivalent or close to a military alliance.

Some could object that the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination – the highest level of diplomatic ties for China – has all the hallmarks of a classical alliance; a number of contradictions tell another story. To top all that off, there is Russia’s sale to India of its S-400 air defense units, which will give Delhi aerial strategic parity with Beijing in the Himalayan region, where the two Asian heavyweights are locked in long-lasting territorial disputes. Thus, as Moscow fears it is the main target of what it called Washington’s “double containment” from the Euro-Russian border to the Western Pacific, it ends up contributing to the double containment of its “informal ally” China from the Indo-Chinese frontier to East Asia.

A greater problem

All that said, it is worth noting that THAAD deployment in South Korea would only be a small part of a broader US defense design. If Beijing and Moscow want their strategic deterrence potential in Northeast Asia to be left intact, they have to find ways to perforate the whole American missile defense network in Asia-Pacific.

Integrated by Japan’s and South Korea’s indigenous anti-missile apparatuses, this regional anti-ballistic framework is, in turn, an element of the global US missile defense umbrella, which also includes satellite early-warning systems to detect ballistic threats in advance.

No doubt that China and Russia have plenty of work ahead of them.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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