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The Peninsula

Why is China so upset about THAAD?

Published August 30, 2016
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: South Korea, China

By Mark Tokola

The decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea has been controversial in South Korea, and predictably has been condemned by North Korea, but, judging by headlines and official statements, seems to have upset the Chinese more than anyone else.  China has been vociferous that the THAAD deployment threatens not only to raise tension on the Korean peninsula but would destabilize the entire region.  At first glance, it seems hard to understand why China would be so opposed to a defensive system which has no use other than to shoot down missiles that are on their way to striking South Korean targets.  Following an extensive series of North Korean missile tests of exactly the type that THAAD would defend against, why would any country (with the probable exception of North Korea) take issue with South Korean self-defense – particularly when Pyongyang has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks?

The main objection raised by Chinese representatives is that the U.S. has a hidden agenda, and will use THAAD’s radar system to look into Chinese territory.  U.S. commentators have noted in reply that the system is oriented towards the north, not the west, and reorienting it towards China would be detectable.  One might also ask, so what?  What would be so terrible about the U.S. being able to detect a Chinese missile launch sooner rather than later?  Seeking the means to learn early of an incoming attack would not seem to be a particularly belligerent desire.  It is worth noting that thirty-four nations, including the U.S. and Russia — but not China — are parties to the Open Skies Treaty which allows all of its parties unfettered aerial surveillance flights for the express purpose of looking into each other’s territory.  That is considered confidence-building, not destabilizing.

A further Chinese objection to THAAD is that the U.S. also secretly intends it to be part of a regional missile defense system which would ‘encircle’ China.  However, such a regional system would require a very public agreement among nations of the region, including Japan as well as South Korea.  Reaching such an agreement, and working out the technical implementation of such a system, would require a long, deliberative process whether South Korea deployed THAAD in the near-term or not.  THAAD does not need to be part of a regional system to achieve its aim of defending South Korea against a North Korean attack.

The argument has been made that because China has no understandable military reason to oppose the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, its objections to THAAD must be more about politics than about security.  China may have hoped that it could drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea by creating an issue that would stir up anti-American sentiment in South Korea or, optimally, that would produce an apparent defeat for the U.S. if China could persuade South Korea not to deploy the system.  U.S. officials were careful to adhere to the policy line that whether to deploy THAAD was a decision for South Korea, not a test of the alliance.  Nevertheless, a decision not to deploy THAAD would have given the impression of strengthening Chinese influence.  Another political motivation for Chinese objections to THAAD may have been to divert attention away from Beijing’s failure to stop North Korea from violating international obligations regarding nuclear and missile testing.

However, it seems likely that China’s objections to THAAD may actually include a genuine strategic element — but not in a way that China would publicly articulate.  Students of Cold War history will remember that the Soviet Union vigorously objected to U.S. development of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM), with the accompanying bilateral tension eventually leading to a 1972 ABM Treaty that lasted until 2002.  The Soviet Union’s objections to ABM were rooted in nuclear war-fighting doctrine.   The nuclear balance between the U.S. and the USSR created a situation that was termed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): an attack by either country would lead to the destruction of both.  Any initial nuclear attack would be met by a retaliatory nuclear attack, leading to what all recognized would be a nuclear Armageddon.  The logic of MAD required a credible “second strike” capability by both sides, i.e. that either the Soviet Union or the United States would be able to strike back against a nuclear attack.

The development of an effective anti-ballistic missile threated the nuclear balance by creating the possibility that the U.S. or the USSR would be able to launch a nuclear attack and then use ABMs to defeat the retaliatory strike – ensuring that one side actually “won” the nuclear exchange by striking first.  The U.S. argued that the ABM was not for the purpose of creating such nuclear superiority, but rather was intended to defeat an attack by a rogue nation with limited missile capability, or perhaps to counter an attack resulting from an accidental launch.  The most obvious way to overcome an ABM system would be to overwhelm it with additional ballistic missiles.  No one argued that the ABM systems of the twentieth century would be able to provide a one-hundred percent effective canopy.  Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was ill-prepared at the time to become involved in an expensive ABM arms race and the ABM Treaty was negotiated, under which each party was permitted to construct two 100-ABM missile complexes to protect key areas.  MAD continued.

Chinese military planners are certainly aware of this history, and even if they weren’t, would be driven by the same concerns that occurred to Soviet planners.  An effective ABM system would seem to create the possibility of defeating a second strike capability absent a ballistic missile building program large enough to overwhelm the ABM system.  Today, China would certainly prefer to develop what it would consider a sufficient strategic deterrent without having to become involved in an expensive arms race.

This is a long, long way from THAAD’s limited, defensive purposes but fits with China’s statements that THAAD has implications far beyond the Korean peninsula.  The intellectual connection between the Republic of Korea’s decision to install a means of national self-defense and China’s perspective on regional, even global, balances of power says two things about China’s view of foreign policy.  First, China has difficulty crediting the idea that there can be developments within Northeast Asia that are not really about China, i.e. that South Korea might have a specific interest in defending itself against a belligerent North Korea.  Second, China continues to assert what it considers a self-evident right to a sphere of influence in Asia, within which neighboring countries must give priority to China’s national interests.  China would be a more reassuring regional partner if it acknowledged that the cause of tension on the Korean peninsula is North Korea’s pursuit of offensive weapons, not South Korea’s deployment of defensive systems.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own. Image from Max Braun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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