KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Yun Sun, Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, about the Chinese perspective on the THAAD missile defense system.
The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.
Jenna Gibson: Can you start by giving us kind of the big picture here from Chinese perspective? Why are they so opposed to that and how serious are they about trying to stop this deployment?
Yun Sun: Well, the Chinese explanation is that they believe this is a military threat to China’s nuclear capability. It’s because the radar could reach as far as 2,000 kilometers, so the Chinese view that their military deployment and their military exercises, basically any military operations inside mainland China, will not be able to escape the radar that the THAAD system will encompass, so they feel vulnerable. So, there is a security argument there.
There’s also a political argument where the Chinese argue that they see this as an effort by the United States to reinforce and re-strengthen their alliance relations with South Korea. And even with the possibility of the integrated missile defense system in Northeast Asia, the United States is intending to create a Northeast Asia NATO against China. That is a political dimension.
There is also an interesting leadership dimension. If you look at President Xi Jinping’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula since his inauguration in 2013, it is a very interesting shift as Xi Jinping had been trying to pull South Korea closer to China. So, there had been a deterioration of relations between China and North Korea, but at the same time, what forms a sharp contrast to that is a warming or rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul. So it’s almost like Xi Jinping’s personal foreign policy achievement that under him, South Korea has become much closer and much friendlier towards China. So, this THAAD deployment must have been very disappointing for the top Chinese leader, that this is his creation, his baby, and his campaign, and now it’s not coming to a good result.
Judging from the economic sanctions that Beijing has been willing to impose on South Korean, not only government, but primarily South Korean companies. I’d say that the Chinese are very serious about punishing South Korean entities for the deployment of THAAD. That represents Beijing’s determination and their seriousness to stop the deployment. But, I also think they understand that at this point, budget has already been allocated, the land has been secured, and the deployment has started. So, they have to understand that this is going to happen with or without their support or sanction.
Jenna Gibson: So, things have seemed to come to a bit of ahead in a week or so with China allegedly cracking down on streaming of Korean TV shows, going after Lotte department stores, and possibly banning travel agencies from selling trips to Korea. Why has China seemingly stepped up their economic pushback against the missile defense system?
Yun Sun: The timing is because the deployment is finally going to happen materially. In the past, although the decision to deploy the THAAD system was made almost last summer, it was a political decision. So the Chinese have been persistently using different policy instruments, trying to change the calculus, change the decision by the South Korean government. So, I would say that until the deployment is completed and until the South Korean government tells Beijing unequivocally that the decision is permanent and is final, the Chinese will not stop pushing. So before the deployment is completed, Beijing will keep pushing.
Jenna Gibson: So, I have a personal theory. I think that China is killing two birds with one stone here. They are seizing upon an opportunity to cut down on the popularity of Korean pop culture in China, which Beijing has been upset about it for years. What do you think about that? Is this more than just the missile defense system?
Yun Sun: If you look at how the Korean pop culture had been received and perceived in China by the Chinese government, you will find this interesting distinction that basically under President Lee Myung-bak, Korean pop culture was regarded as almost toxic in China. But, we will have to assume that this was very closely linked to the judgment that President Lee Myung-bak was pro-U.S. and anti-China.
Then, under President Park, the Chinese government policy towards Korean pop culture was actually quite positive. You’ll see Korean pop stars appearing on the Chinese New Year’s Festival gala on the Chinese Central Television, which is quite a high prominent treatment for foreign movie actors or pop stars.
So, I would say that the Chinese attitude towards Korean pop culture is still very much related to the political climate between the two countries. When the political relations are good, the Chinese are more likely to treat Korean pop culture with positive reception. But, when the political relations are bad, you will see that there is almost a ban for any Korean soap operas on Chinese TV today.
Jenna Gibson: I will be really curious to see the things go forward, you know, how much are the Korean companies, how much is k-pop, how much are Korean dramas affected going forward? Is there any pushback? I’ll be really curious to follow that.
Yun Sun: Yeah, so far, we haven’t seen that much of a pushback from the Chinese general public. You see this anti-Korea demonstrations in some of Chinese cities as well. You also see that one point, Korean cars were pretty popular in China, and now there are people who are vandalizing Korean cars on the street. So, what that says is the government’s ability to influence the public opinion on these matters is really strong.
There’s also the fact that local governments would assume that the central government want to see this anti-Korea sentiment bubbling from their locale. So sometimes, the central government may not be behind certain movement against a certain Lotte supermarket. But, a local government might be.
Jenna Gibson: Now that the U.S. is clearly in the middle of this, too. We are the ones who are deploying THAAD and of course we are close allies with South Korea. So, what advice would you give to the United States in this situation? Is there a way to work with China on the North Korean issue right now? I know President Trump has been really emphasizing that China peace in solving the North Korean problem. Do you think that that’s the right way to go?
Yun Sun: I think the U.S. is doing the right thing. The deployment of THAAD is not about China, it is about North Korea. And if China doesn’t like it, it must address the source of the problem, which is the North Korean nuclear provocation. So, I think the U.S. is absolutely doing the right thing here.
And for the Trump administration, the U.S. does have this first mover advantage. After the Taiwan controversy, the Tsai Ing-wen phone call, and after President Trump’s comments in the past about how he is going to punish China on trade and is going to negotiate with China for a good deal, I think the Chinese are put on alert. They are very sensitive about what the U.S. might do to China next. And they are not in a very confident position to challenge President Trump. So that almost gives President Trump and his administration an edge, an advantage over China’s policy because China does not want to start a fight with the Trump administration either over North Korea or over the South China Sea.
So, I feel that there is room for the U.S. to push China. For example, there have been talks about more sanctions on North Korea, so China already preempted that. We are already suspending our co-import from North Korea for the rest of this year. What else do you want? You have to be very specific. If you ask us to cut our aid, especially the energy transfer and our food supply to North Korea, the United States will have to answer difficult questions like — what if this creates a humanitarian disaster in North Korea. So, I think the United States has to be very specific about it wants China to do and stand ready to answer the counter-questions that the Chinese will raise.
KEI Intern Jennifer Cho assisted with transcribing this interview.
Image from USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.