International relations, National security | East Asia, Asia

24 March 2017

Why is China getting so upset about Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)? Jaganath Sankaran writes that it may portend a change in the country’s foreign policy.

China has vehemently opposed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defences to South Korea, repeatedly assailing the United States and South Korea and arguing that the decision runs the risk of provoking an arms race in the region.

In fact, even before the South Korean government had made a formal decision on the matter, Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liu Jianchao, said in early 2015 that South Korea should “….think about Beijing’s attention to and concerns over the deployment of THAAD to the peninsula.” Provoked by Chinese intervention in a sovereign matter, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman responded that “a neighbouring country can have its own opinion…But it should not try to influence our [South Korean] security policy.”

A recent exaggerated commentary in the government-run China Daily said the deployment of the system was a “negative influence…similar to that of the Cuban missile crisis.”

The big difference, however, is that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union deployed offensive missiles and nuclear warheads capable of targeting the United States, while the THAAD system is completely defensive.

So, why is China so critical of an entirely defensive system? At first glance, it would seem that the Chinese are concerned about the radar that would be deployed along with the THAAD system. Chinese experts have argued that the radar could be used to track the warheads and decoys launched on Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and thereby “erode its nuclear deterrent—its ability to scare off potential foes from ever considering a nuclear attack.”

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This explanation, however, does not withstand technical scrutiny. Except in a few implausible cases, the THAAD radar does not have the capability needed to separately track warheads and decoys that might be launched using Chinese ICBMs.

In fact, it is conceivable that Chinese leaders are well aware of this. When the US government offered a detailed briefing “to go through the technology and specifications” of the THAAD system with Chinese officials on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declined. A spokesman for the Ministry said that “China did not view the matter ‘as simply a technical one.’”

The real reason behind China’s opposition may have more to do with geopolitical realpolitik and China’s fears about military encirclement by the United States and its allies. For some in China, the deployment of THAAD is evidence validating this fear. There are also worries in China that the deployment of THAAD could be setting a precedent for an advanced anti-missile system that might in the future be configured to intercept Chinese missiles.

Given this, it is not surprising that China has decided to engage in sustained diplomatic coercion to change the South Korean decision. As two South Korean scholars point out “it is highly possible that China considers [South] Korea as the weakest link among the Northeast Asian allies of the United States” and believed it could influence the nature of the relationship.

In fact, China has gone as far as to insinuate it could directly attack South Korea if Seoul proceeds with the decision to install THAAD. A Chinese newspaper commentary appearing under a pen name that is often used to outline the Chinese Communist Party’s view on matters of foreign policy said that “the US will ‘pay the price’ for its decision to put an advanced missile defence system in South Korea…if the United States and South Korea harm the strategic security interests of countries in the region including China, then they are destined to pay the price for this and receive a proper counter-attack.”

This threat, in essence, seems to suggest that South Korea should subsume its legitimate defensive needs to China’s broader geopolitical preferences.

Chinese rhetoric on the issue of THAAD may portend a bigger change in its foreign policy. With growing economic and military clout, China is likely to be less attached to its earlier doctrine of non-interference in the internal matters of other nation-states and could assert its interests more aggressively when opportunities come up. The United States and its allies will be well advised to expect more such attempts by China to shape the policy choices of its neighbours.

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