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Resistance to THAAD not in Beijing's national Interest

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-03-23 20:23

China is turning up the heat on economic pressure targeted at South Korean firms to express its displeasure at the installation of the US-South Korean missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). But this opposition is also likely to be detrimental to Chinese national interests, according to Shin Kak Soo, former First Vice Minister for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Securitys (IFANS) Center for International Law. Daily NK recently sat down for an interview with Director Shin (pictured left).


Daily NK (DNK): Did you anticipate this level of opposition from the Chinese on the THAAD installation?  

Shin Kak Soo (SKS): I expected that China would retaliate in some form because China has continually opposed the system. I knew that this opposition would materialize at some point. China is particularly concerned with losing face, so it would be impossible for Beijing to simply let it go and move on. However, the severity of the retaliation is harsher than I expected. This is likely related to the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping vocally opposed THAAD on three or four occasions.    


For China, THAAD is a 'test case' that has implications for the twenty or so countries that populate its local neighborhood. The expression goes, Kill the chicken to teach the monkey. China wants to be in control of relationships with countries in Southeast Asia and Middle Asia, and wants to establish a precedent by warning and punishing countries that fall out of line. THAAD constitutes a significant problem in Chinas eyes, so Beijing is meting out retaliation in proportion to what it perceives is the severity of the problem.   


DNK: Do you think that THAAD represents the kind of direct security threat to China that Beijing alleges it does?


SKS: I dont think so. And I think that Chinese experts also believe that the missile defense system doesnt pose much of a threat to their security interests. THAAD is a defensive weapon, and it doesnt have implications for Chinas tactical nuclear capabilities. Chinas strategic nuclear weapons act as a deterrent by guaranteeing mutually assured destruction (MAD) against countries like Russia and America. THAAD uses hit-to-kill technology to physically collide with and stop incoming missiles. The system is expressly built to deal with missile threats from North Korea. It has no impact on Chinas nuclear deterrent.   


DNK: China insists that THAADs X-band radar will enable the US and South Korea to detect and track Chinese military installations.


SKS: THAAD batteries have 6 launching tubes for a total of 48 missiles. So, if North Korea launches a large volley of missiles at once, it may be possible to defeat THAAD. For this reason, THAADs radars will need to be trained on North Korea at all times. There is little room for error.


THAADs AN/TPY-2 land radar, also known as the X-band radar, has two modes, with different detection ranges. The long distance mode can detect objects at 2,000 km. But the THAAD being installed in South Korea will be set to the interception mode, with a range of about 600 km. The angle of detection is limited to 90 degrees, which means that the radar will be fixed on North Korea and will not reach into China.  


If South Korea was really intent on learning information about Chinese military installations and movements, this radar is not very helpful. South Korea already has the Israeli-made Green Pine radar for some time. This radar would yield better results that the THAAD radar. But when this system was installed, China did not offer up any resistance. Russia also has radar capable of seeing into China, and Beijing did not protest against that installation either. So it is interesting to understand why Beijing has such a hard time accepting THAAD.


DNK: That being the case, what is Chinas intention here?


SKS: I believe it is related to general opposition against Korea, Japan, and America expanding their military cooperation. South Korea has refrained from entering into ballistic missile defense systems with Japan and America, but installing THAAD would put Korea on that track.


When we look at the nature of Chinese decision making, it is hard for Beijing to change course on a policy line once it makes a public statement. So it would be difficult for it to roll back resistance on THAAD now. Its just the nature of Chinas political system. Xi Jinping and the country as a whole would perceive it as a loss of face to change course.


DNK: Will it be possible for China to withdraw opposition to THAAD?


SKS: Not explicitly. However, in the case that China comes to believe that, no matter how much opposition they put forward, the installation is inevitable, they might judge that its relationship with Korea is more important and decide to discretely accept THAAD. They might do so by stopping economic pressure being applied to South Korean firms, and then pursuing normalization of ties with Seoul.  


DNK: Is Chinas THAAD opposition actually in their national interest?


SKS: Its counter-productive. First of all, Beijing will not get what it wants: withdrawal of the THAAD installation. Even if a new South Korean government comes in and decides to review it, the odds are strongly in favor of installation. Relations between the two countries have plummeted because of Beijings THAAD opposition. Feelings are deteriorating in both countries. Since rising to power three years ago, Xi Jinping has devoted lots of time and energy into the bilateral relationship with South Korea. Seeing that go up in smoke would be a loss for China.  


Furthermore, among the worlds most powerful nations, China is the most dependent on trade. Despite this, Beijing is using trade as a weapon of retaliation. This might have a boomerang effect, and come back to bite them. China claims that it is a free trade country, but this latest episode reveals that there are distinct limitations to that.  


In addition, China is emphasizing its role as a diplomatic heavyweight on the global stage, but this kind of blackmail does no favors for their reputation. Countries in the region might not trust China on its word when it says that it prefers to resolve problems through diplomacy. As a world power, China will lose credibility when it resorts to heavy handed tactics and then fails to achieve its goal. For South Korea, the important thing is to patiently and calmly respond, and avoid letting the issue separate and divide us.


DNK: How do you evaluate our governments response to this development?


SKS: Of course, we cant really say that our governments response has been totally sufficient. When the THAAD issue first because a problem in Korea, Seoul announced the 3 Nos Principle, meaning: no decision has been made, there has been no consultation with America, and there has been no request to deploy from America. I personally think that this policy was not a helpful one.


DNK: You think that Seouls inability to respond resolutely and without ambiguity caused the problem to become bigger than it needed to be?


SKS: THAADs installation was an inevitable decision made to protect US Armed Forces in Korea against North Koreas growing nuclear threat. If the decision making and installation process went faster, it would have been easier to persuade the Chinese. For three out of four years, the Park Geun-hye presidency had very good relations with China. It was also on communicative terms with China. During that time, China should have been persuaded in terms of THAADs necessity. But because of the 3 Nos, things got even more complicated.


Even after North Koreas fourth nuclear test last year, China remained uncooperative. At that time, South Korea began to discuss the THAAD installation, but the discussions were far from smooth. For example, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn visited China in June of that year. Even though America and South Korea were preparing to announce the decision to install THAAD just a few days later, Hwang did not bring that up in his meeting with the Chinese. A week after that, China was defeated in an arbitration ruling related to its positions on territory in the South China Sea. Beijing could view this timing as an affront.


DNK: If the decision to install THAAD was announced earlier, do you think Chinas opposition would be less significant?


SKS: Of course, they would have opposed it, but I believe the South Korea-China relationship would be a little better than it currently is. It is easy to directly witness the impact of economic or other domestic policies, but diplomacy is different. Sometimes, its impossible to measure or judge the impact of a diplomatic strategy. Diplomatic relations get better or worse depending on a complex array of factors that pile up on top of one another. The same is true when it comes to THAAD. There were a lot of diverse elements that came into play.


DNK: Some are also concerned that the deteriorating relationship with China also means a lost opportunity to work together on North Korea policy.


SKS: There is that possibility. Much depends on how China implements UN Security Council Resolutions. If China actually becomes upset and agitated over the THAAD installation, it is America and South Koreas job to prevent this. The Trump administration is emphasizing Chinas role in denuclearizing North Korea. This is an effort to get China to responsibly implement UN resolutions.   


If China is hoping to use the THAAD issue as leverage, they are risking their overall relationship with the US. The US recently fined the large Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE $1.1 billion for breach of North Korea sanctions. That fine was 26 times larger than the companys annual profits. It is an indicator that Trump will use strong measures on the road ahead to get China to cooperate on denuclearization.  


DNK: South Korea could be negatively impacted by a US-China power struggle. Considering this, how should Seoul plan for an appropriate diplomatic and security strategy?


SKS: The Republic of Korea should fundamentally consider its own interests in formulating strategy. The largest threat to South Korea right now is North Koreas nuclear and missile cabilities, coupled with the instability of the Kim regime. After that, the biggest problem is Chinas diplomatic and security policy. China can bully South Korea on issues like THAAD.  


South Koreas most valuable asset is its alliance with the US. It has to continue to get stronger. With the USs new administration in place, its Asia policies are set to change. To prevent the policies from going in an unfavorable direction, it will be important to strengthen the alliance. So, its important to resolve any problems that might arise between America and Korea as quickly as possible. South Korea should set a diplomatic strategy to solve the North Korean nuclear problem through cooperation with America.  


After establishing firm ties with the Americans to cement the alliance, it will be time to turn to neighboring countries like China, Japan, and Russia to seek out cooperation. But it will also be important to avoid over-reliance on neighboring countries. That means going out to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia, EU countries, and the UN to build up diplomatic capital. Then it will be time to spend that capital on neighboring countries.   

DNK: You emphasized the American alliance. The Trump administration is looking like it will take a hawkish position on North Korea. How much does this approach synergize with the approach that South Korea will need to take?


SKS: First of all, secondary sanctions will be necessary to induce China to get involved in denuclearization efforts in a meaningful way. We have continued to tighten and strengthen sanctions on North Korea to solve the nuclear problem, but nothing has been properly executed. UN Security Council Resolution 2321 is not strong enough. The US congress is becoming tougher and tougher on the issue. The Trump administrations position is that China must become more actively involved in pursuing a solution. Because of this, I think secondary sanctions are likely to come into action.


South Korea must prevent a preemptive strike from happening. That would lead to a full scale war. Of course, even if this happens, I dont think that the South would lose. However, Seoul and the surrounding regions would see tremendous losses of human life. All the progress that has been made over the last 50 years through blood and sweat would be lost in an instant. A preemptive strike is not a realistic option. America also agrees with this assessment.  


I dont think that relocating tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea right now would be the best plan.  However, if North Korea does not stop its nuclear development and becomes a real nuclear power, that option might become more sensible.

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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