Last week South Korea and the US confirmed their decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on South Korean soil. This deployment is a joint response to North Korea’s continual testing of new medium- and long-range ballistic missiles and to its belligerent rhetoric, including the declared intention to attack US military bases in the Pacific and the continental US. North Korea has now conducted four nuclear tests and claims to have miniaturised nuclear warheads. 

A successful THAAD interception test, Hawaii, 2010. Photo: Flickr/U.S. Missle Defence Agency

China has already registered a strong protest against the possibility of THAAD deployment, and now South Korea and the US expect a robust reaction to this week’s confirmation. China’s concerns are: 

  • THAAD could use its X-band radar to defeat China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which relies on a ballistic missile attack upon US forward bases in East Asia;
  • The THAAD decision implies that South Korea may join the US-led Ballistic Missile Defense system, and;
  • THAAD represents a serious reduction in the effectiveness of the buffer zone between US and Chinese forces in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. 

But who's responsible for the current situation? And is China really being treated unfairly?

First, China should be wary of provoking anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. Since President Park Geun-Hye came to office in 2013 she has made huge diplomatic efforts to encourage China to do more about North Korea: she has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping six times, and attended last September’s military parade in Beijing, despite US discomfort. There was a reasonable expectation that the substantial economic interdependence of China and South Korea could be leveraged to improve security cooperation, and thus to find a way to deal with North Korea’s defiance of international sanctions. 

Now, however, China seems inclined to treat South Korea as a tributary state. This Middle-Kingdom mentality threatens to undermine the strategic cooperative partnership between Beijing and Seoul. 

Second, the decision to deploy THAAD should be viewed as a last resort. US Forces Korea [USFK] first proposed THAAD deployment back in 2013 in response to the North Korea WMD threat but Park was reluctant to proceed. In the intervening years, China could have sought to constrain the behaviour of its rogue ally but it did not. China’s failure to act thus directly contributed to THAAD deployment.

Third, China has pointedly refused to listen when Park has tried to communicate just how seriously South Korea views the North Korean WMD threat. Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January, Park attempted to reach Xi by telephone, but he declined to speak with her. Park has tried to balance South Korea’s relations with China against the US-ROK security. Her China policy is in tatters, through no fault of her own.

Fourth, given the increasing ideological alienation between North Korea and China, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that North Korean missiles may one day target China. This would attract widespread discontent and severe criticism from the Chinese people who are currently being kept loyal by Xi’s vision of the ‘Chinese Dream’. Park has clearly differentiated South Korea’s need to protect itself from North Korean WMD threats on one hand, and the geopolitical wrangling between China and the US on the other. China’s leaders risk becoming deeply unpopular if they blur these two issues together and, as a consequence, China becomes a North Korean target. 

Fifth, the ball is now very obviously in China’s court: will Beijing finally start to take North Korea’s WMD threat seriously? North Korea's president, Kim Jong-un, is now behaving just as he likes, unsuccessfully testing an submarine-launched ballistic missile within hours of the THAAD announcement, despite general pressure from China. If China wants to avoid any further unwelcome news (such as South Korea deciding to formally participate in the US-led Ballistic Missile Defense system, together with Japan), it must rein in its unruly client. 

China-South Korea-US cooperation

If the China-US confrontation on the Korean Peninsula could be mitigated, this would allow China to engage in genuine security coordination to deal with North Korean WMD threats. It is not too late to prevent THAAD deployment, but China must learn to recognise its true interests. 

China would be relieved to escape the supposedly destabilising effect of THAAD (Beijing argues that THAAD would not be operationally effective against North Korean ICBMs, and must therefore have another purpose), and South Korea would not have to find a site for the THAAD facility, which has encountered significant opposition from local people concerned about its safety. Within South Korea there is significant popular support for a trilateral security entente between Beijing, Seoul and Washington. Moreover, there is a path to resetting relations with the Pyongyang regime: a simultaneous implementation of North Korean denuclearisation and a peace treaty between North Korea and the US to replace the current inflexible Armistice Agreement.

The existing strategic cooperative partnership between China and South Korea cannot sustain the destructive impact of the fundamental disagreement over THAAD. Soon it will be hard to avoid an escalating militarisation of the Korean Peninsula, perhaps with South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. China can still prevent this outcome, but only through a more flexible approach based on reality rather than ideology. China should cooperate with the US and South Korea on the North Korean WMD threats: the situation is grave, and threatens the security of the whole of Northeast Asia, as well as the wider world.