Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says South Korea's recent decision to deploy the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile defense system harms the foundation of mutual trust between Beijing and Seoul.
Seoul asserts the missile shield’s presence is needed in response to North Korea’s provocative actions, and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice says the deployment is a purely defensive measure.
So then why doesn’t China want THAAD deployed on the Korean Peninsula?
Katharine Moon, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at Wellesley College, says the easiest way to understand China’s objection to THAAD’s deployment is to look back at a similar case with Russia under the administrartion of former president George W. Bush.
At the time, the United States had intended to put a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, but that was plan subsequently was scrapped by President Barack Obama, Bush's successor in office.
In all, Moon says, it took 10 years before the U.S. was able to place a missile-defense system in Romania - until there was a concerted effort by the United States to explain that this system was not aimed at Russia, and would not reduce Moscow’s deterrence capabilities.
“I think China is in a similar position,” says Moon. “Even if they understand that [THAAD] is not aimed at compromising China’s security, the fact that it would change the strategic balance to some extent on the peninsula, so close to Chinese territory, is from their perspective a threat, no matter what the United States says.”
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.
The EastWest Institute’s East Asia fellow, Jonathan Miller, notes that while China may have some concerns over its so-called second-strike capabilities - in terms of strategic deterrence with the United States - he feels Beijing's objections have more to do geopolitics.
China sees “the acceptance of THAAD on the Korean peninsula as potentially the precursor to a much larger missile-defense U.S.-led system in the region," Miller says, "and I think they’re quite concerned about stronger ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.”
Katharine Moon acknowledges that while there has not been any overt Chinese policy to punish South Korea, Seoul has experienced a drop in tourism and economic trade levels. She thinks “the Chinese people have ways of getting the signal" to South Korea, "in a less escalated way.”
Moon says the international community should not necessarily dismiss Beijing’s sense of betrayal by South Korea, either. Since Beijing thought ties were improving with Seoul, and had also indicated it wanted to play a role in mediating discussions with North Korea, she added, the move toward THAAD could possibly be seen South Korea deliberately slighting China.
But could the missile system prove to be as destabilizing for the peninsula as China asserts?
From the Chinese perspective, Jonathan Miller says THAAD deployment is “not going to help tensions on the Korean peninsula. It seems to be another element towards deterrence, and perhaps stepping away a little bit from the kind of diplomatic approach to resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"I think the United States and South Korea are looking for a balanced policy [of deterrence and diplomacy] in order to resolve the situation on the Korean peninsula," Miller adds. "But I think that the Chinese position is that [the U.S. and South Korea are leaning toward] deterrence, and more toward force, and that’s not something good for the region.”
Katharine Moon also says regional stability could be affected “only if the North Koreans react with something more severe than the missile tests they’ve already been launching,” such as explicitly targeting a site in South Korea, or if a North Korean missile test goes awry and the missile lands near the South Korean border, or in Japanese territory.
However, Moon says the region most likely will see an increase in diplomatic tension, rather than physical confrontation, and that these issues will have to be addressed by the next U.S. administration.