China’s response to the THAAD – Bringing their own nightmares to life
The decision by South Korea to deploy the US anti-missile battery, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in July 2016, has been met by significant opposition from China who claim it poses an unacceptable threat to their national security. Since August 2016, China has continued to escalate its use of soft power against South Korea in an attempt to force Seoul to reverse its decision to deploy the THAAD. Beginning with the cancelling of performances by K-POP stars, this pressure has most recently escalated to the boycotting of South Korean companies in China, and the banning of Chinese tourism companies taking Chinese tourists to South Korea.
Now China claims the THAAD poses a significant national security threat. It asserts that the THAAD’s radar, which is able to detect the launch of a missile in near real-time, would significantly weaken its nuclear second strike capability in a conflict with the US. However, taking a closer look suggests that other concerns are more likely to be driving their aggressive opposition. While the THAAD’s radar is powerful, US military satellites can already detect a missile launched from anyway in the world within seconds of it being launched. Thus, rendering its concerns about the THAAD’s radar largely unnecessary. Further, at present the THAAD is unable to intercept a Chinese ICBM fired at the US. Thus, meaning that the THAAD presently does not pose a threat to China’s second-strike capability as they claim, and that pressure on Seoul to reverse the decision is disproportionate.
So, why the overreaction? The main concern motivating China’s overreaction is their paranoia over a US led effort to contain them. In particular, Beijing fear a formal military cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea to limit their ability to defend or resist US action against their interests. While the THAAD is currently unable to intercept Chinese ICBMs, there is no reason for China to not think it would not be able to do so in the future. This is important, because if the THAAD was able to intercept Chinese medium to long range missiles and was also deployed in Japan, which is very much a possibility, China would face overlapping US missile defence systems which would restrict China’s ability to strike US bases in Asia and the continental United States.
Arguably, China’s concerns do have some merit as the US in 2012 did announce an intention to create a string of missile defence systems in East Asia primarily focused on North Korea, but could be used against China. However, the current tensions between South Korea and China over the THAAD could have been avoided had China been serious about pressuring North Korea to halt its missile and nuclear weapons programs, which would have eliminated the need to deploy the THAAD in the first place. Nevertheless, what needs to be examined is how Seoul and South Koreans have responded to Beijing’s pressure.
Recent opinion polls on the issue of the THAAD, either side of the recent Presidential elections in South Korea suggest a decision reversal is looking unlikely largely thanks to China’s pressure. These polls, which were released in March and June 2017, show that China’s pressure on South Korea rather than dissuading South Korea from deploying the THAAD, has increased support for the deployment of the THAAD after months of declining support amongst South Koreans for the THAAD. The poll points to growing resentment amongst South Koreans of China’s meddling in their internal affairs as the main reason for this growing support, which is now shared by over 50% of South Koreans. This is significant as the deployment of the THAAD was accelerated to be completed before the May 9 presidential elections in South Korea. With the powerful disincentives to reverse the deployment with most South Koreans in favour of deploying the THAAD and the very real threat posed by the North’s missile development, it appears that for the near future at least, the THAAD will remain. Thus, meaning that China’s attempts to force Seoul to reverse its decision appears to have contributed significantly to bringing their nightmare to life – the THAAD right at its doorstep.