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

The Lotte Group said its website in China was hacked on March 1 and in the following days more than 10 of its stores in the country were forced to close for “inspections” by authorities, a string of events that suggest Beijing is making a point.

The point being that China is unhappy the Lotte conglomerate sold a golf course in South Korea to the military. Beijing, of course, isn’t concerned about the loss of 18 holes but what will replace the bunkers and greens: A US missile defence system with a radar powerful enough to peer into and perhaps spy on China.

South Korea and its ally the US can argue the need for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence or THAAD system to shoot down incoming rockets became evident this week when North Korea fired four missiles in the direction of Japan.

Saber rattling and more from Pyongyang is routine whenever joint US – South Korean military exercises take place at this time of the year. Still, Lotte’s land sale has opened up another front of conflict in this already conflicted region of Asia as China made a private company a target of its displeasure and showed cyber attacks are a ready part of its arsenal.

Separately, events this week also signal yet again that China’s moderating influence on the trigger-happy in Pyongyang has definite limitations.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ballistic rocket launch drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017.

The US is not yielding and the planned THAAD deployment is moving ahead, driven by North Korea’s refusal to halt its ballistic missile development program.

The context

A bigger backdrop to the THAAD deployment is the US expressing reservations about the performance and cybersecurity of the vital US Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, which is tasked with defending the US from ballistic missile attacks using interceptors on the US West Coast and Alaska.

In a recent report, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s overall assessment report was critical of the GMD’s state of readiness.

“GMD has demonstrated a limited capability to defend the US Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran,” the report said.

“Few cybersecurity assessments have been performed to-date,” states the DOT&E report which recommended that, “there should be an increased emphasis on GMD survivability testing, including cybersecurity.”

This perceived GMD vulnerability along with longstanding questions about any attempt to shoot down an incoming enemy missile after its so-called boost phase is why Pentagon planners must lean on other active missile interceptors, either at sea or on land.

Enter the forward-deployed THAAD batteries, and in this case placing them as close as possible to North Korea, as well as the interceptors aboard US Navy vessels.

Read: North Korean ballistic missile has already met its match

The North Korean missile launches will no doubt trigger a more heated discussion and this will not make things easier for China, which is already having a difficult enough time getting a fix on the emerging defense policies and strategies that the administration of US President Donald Trump intends to pursue.

Rocket man. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017.

Enter Zumwalt

Trump’s cabinet is brimming with US generals — James Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster  — and China is clearly overloaded by the mixed signals it is receiving as Trump and his military men have appeared to be on different frequencies on more than one occasion when it comes to important policy issues.

In addition, Trump is not shy about exhibiting the full muscle of the US military, and this will add to China’s anxiety and displeasure.

The USS Zumwalt, the new super-stealth US MeantiNavy destroyer, is being put through its paces in San Diego and may dock at a South Korean naval base later this year. When it does, Zumwalt will add to the China tension.

A different kind of ship, the USS Zumwalt. Photo: Navy Times

Along with the THAAD radar-related headache for China, Beijing is certainly not going to look favorably on the Zumwalt’s radar capabilities, nor that its immense size and dozens of missile launch tubes makes it a formidable floating missile defense platform in disguise.

Meantime, North Korea’s rocket launches, cyber attacks and the harsh words make the front pages, but in the background quiet talks continue.

US and Chinese academic and government experts had their latest meeting in Beijing early this year, or the 10th round of talks organized by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies and the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations. Details of these discussions are not shared with the public.