By Jacob L. Shapiro
Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Yesui met a South Korean delegation in Beijing on Feb. 16. Zhang conveyed the Chinese government’s staunch objection to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) in South Korea. There are two salient points that can be made about THAAD. First, the discussion of missile defense is more a gesture for the U.S. than a strategic goal. Second, understanding the underlying issues motivating the U.S. and South Korea lays bare the current balance of power in the region.
THAAD is back in the headlines after recent provocations by North Korea: a test of what Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb on Jan. 6, and a rocket launch on Jan. 31 that sent a North Korean satellite into the Earth’s orbit. On Feb. 7, an official from South Korea’s Defense Ministry said that South Korea and the U.S. “will officially” discuss the potential for deployment of THAAD to South Korea in the near future. This is the first observation to make: a great deal of diplomatic bluster is being produced over future “official” discussions. There is a lot of daylight between official discussions and actual deployment.
The issue of the U.S. deploying THAAD to South Korea has been on the table for well over a year, and has provoked negative reactions from China for just as long. In October 2014, China’s lead envoy for six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear program said that U.S. moves to boost American military strength in northeast Asia would only provoke “strong dissatisfaction.” On Feb. 4, 2015, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan personally relayed China’s concern about THAAD’s potential deployment to his South Korean counterpart. Russia has also voiced its displeasure with the potential move. Just last week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned that it could ignite an arms race in northeast Asia and destabilize the already tense Korean Peninsula. North Korea, for its part, is also obviously against such a deployment. These protestations, however, amount to little more than hot air.
Unlike Poland and the Czech Republic, which felt betrayed when the U.S. announced in 2009 it would abandon plans to place ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in those countries, South Korea has not been anxious to accept the U.S. deployment of THAAD. In Europe, missile defense became a symbol of American commitment to protecting the region from Russian ambitions. This was despite the fact that the BMD installations the U.S. was considering could not have stopped the Russians in the first place.
However, South Korea feels no such insecurity. More than 28,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are based in South Korea – and no fewer than 28,000 American soldiers have been stationed there since 1951. Both the Eighth United States Army and the Seventh Air Force are based in the country. South Korea is also the site of the only U.S. Navy base on mainland Asia, located in Chinhae. The Europeans wanted BMD installations because they thought it would guarantee that the U.S. would respond to Russian aggression. But the deployment of THAAD to South Korea would not function as a deterrent to an attack from North Korea or China, nor would it guarantee a U.S. response if such aggression should materialize. The United States already has enough troops and equipment based in South Korea to serve that purpose. Furthermore, South Korea’s defense system currently has the ability to deflect potential attacks from Pyongyang. The THAAD system targets North Korea’s more advanced missiles, but Seoul is much more concerned with North Korean artillery rockets or large-scale attacks with short-range missiles that would overwhelm the systems it already has in place. Whether or not the U.S. deploys THAAD then is immaterial.
For South Korea, the publicizing of the U.S. desire to deploy THAAD on its soil last year amounted to a nuisance. On one hand, South Korea wants to strengthen its ability to develop missile defense by itself, and the U.S. offer to deploy THAAD does not include an agreement to share technology with Seoul. On the other hand, China has an important relationship with South Korea. China is arguably the country with the most leverage when it comes to changing North Korean behavior, and China is also South Korea’s largest trade partner. But while in the past it wasn’t helpful for South Korea to irritate China by agreeing to a U.S. deployment of the THAAD system, that dynamic has shifted. North Korea is appearing particularly unstable these days, and problems in China’s economy have resulted in the potential for a South Korean economic crisis. A more receptive attitude towards THAAD in Seoul, considering the current circumstances, makes more sense now than in 2014 or even 2015.
The U.S. claims that it wants to deploy THAAD in South Korea to protect both itself and regional allies from potential North Korean aggression. There are two problems with this reasoning. First of all, it assumes that the North Koreans would actually attack Seoul, or even use a nuclear device against the U.S. or one of its allies in the region. Such an action, however, would result in an international response of such proportion that, at minimum, Kim Jong Un’s regime would be removed and, at maximum, a devastating U.S. response would follow. It is possible that the North Korean leadership is crazy enough to launch such an attack, but it is far more likely that Pyongyang is using its nuclear program to ensure its survival and not invite its own annihilation. That involves appearing to be deranged while possessing enough nuclear capability to frighten its enemies, without actually using it.
Second of all, there is a more straightforward explanation for why the U.S. would want to deploy THAAD on the Asian mainland. It is a gesture the United States can use to demonstrate its power in Asia. But it must be remembered that a gesture is simply an unpleasant way of convincing the other side that it should capitulate on the underlying issue. In this case, the underlying issue is that the U.S. wants China to tow a much harder line with North Korea and support stronger sanctions against the regime than it has in the past. China has already begun to do this – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Feb. 12 that the U.N. should pass a resolution enabling strong sanctions that would make sure North Korea paid the necessary price for its behavior. The U.S. is using the potential deployment of THAAD to shape Chinese behavior.
To understand why even the potential for THAAD in South Korea can accomplish that, it is important to understand the strategic significance of South Korea’s relationship with the United States. Since President Barack Obama entered office in 2008, his administration has been trying to “pivot” to Asia, but has been continually thwarted by various crises in the Middle East and disputes with Russia. But the need to establish a more robust presence in Asia still remains, and the U.S. is making small moves across the region, from closing a deal with the Philippines for the use of their naval and air bases to increased cooperation with regional allies. This is especially the case with South Korea, which will become even more important to U.S. strategic interests as China weakens and Japan increases in power. Dr. George Friedman has predicted these developments in both China and Japan and detailed them in his book The Next Decade. The U.S. will need South Korea to increase its options in dealing with both countries. THAAD, in the grand scheme of things, matters little – but the close relationship between Seoul and Washington means a great deal.
China in particular has great cause for concern over U.S. strategy. But China ultimately can do nothing to stop the U.S. from deploying THAAD in South Korea, no more so than China can prevent U.S. basing in the Philippines or U.S. naval dominance of the entire Pacific. For centuries, all of Korea was under China’s direct sphere of influence. That ended in 1894, when Korea became the immediate cause of the First Sino-Japanese War. That war – which began with China’s inability to control events in Seoul – resulted in an embarrassing defeat for Beijing and proved to be the opening salvo in decades of conflict between Japan and China that would leave tens of millions of Chinese dead. China does not want the U.S. to have such a strong relationship with South Korea – but there is also not much Beijing can do about it.
The strategic situation will change relatively little by whether or not the U.S. deploys THAAD to South Korea. But the U.S. also knows that the specter of THAAD can be useful in getting China to do what it wants because it is a gesture Beijing cannot ignore. THAAD itself is a hot-button topic that will eventually pass from the headlines, just as BMD in Europe has since 2009. What will remain is the underlying power dynamic – one which the U.S. dominates without any challenger able to equal its strength.