Deployment of US missile defence system gives China less incentive to seek diplomatic solutions
John Kotch says the US deployment of Thaad in South Korea risks upsetting the delicate balance of powers in and around the peninsula, and may make the region more unstable
Thaad, America’s most advanced defence system, recently landed with a political thud on China’s doorstep. At least that’s the view from Beijing, whose strenuous opposition to its deployment to South Korea is rooted in the concern that the anti-missile system’s ability to lock onto its strategic deterrent directly threatens its security, irrespective of whether that is its intended purpose.
For Washington and Seoul, however, the decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence unit was justified as an appropriate response to Pyongyang’s continued development of a nuclear deterrent capability, specifically the successful testing of an intermediate-range missile capable of carrying a warhead into space, on a trajectory which could reach US territory on Guam or the Aleutian islands.
From an operational and/or technical viewpoint, whether South Korea is the optimal location to intercept an errant North Korean missile is arguable. It is, however, without question disadvantageous in terms of Beijing’s willingness to remain an active diplomatic partner as opposed to a fence-sitter in reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. How much political leverage Beijing is willing to exercise is proportional to how it views its own security stake.
In essence, the trade-off is technical versus political, with reliability a key variable. Based on previous deployments, Thaad has been highly effective in shooting down missiles in the launch phase, utilising kinetic energy rather than explosive power charges to destroy a missile in flight. By contrast, China’s security interests on the Korean peninsula are broader than just the North’s nuclear programme and are subject to political considerations.
These include an unwavering commitment to the political integrity of the North as a buffer zone, pursuing a balanced relationship with both Koreas in the interests of peace and stability on the peninsula, and, finally, using trade with the South, one of China’s most important economic relationships, as a wedge for political advantage.
At this juncture, it would be foolish to pretend that the deployment of Thaad didn’t muddy the waters, pitting coercive diplomacy based on exploiting technical capabilities against cooperative diplomacy relying on political calculations. The danger is that the former will undercut the latter, resulting in a more dangerous situation overall.
Northeast Asia may be likened to a hexagon comprising the two Koreas at its core and three major powers (China, Russia and Japan) on its periphery. A US military presence both on the peninsula as well as the periphery rounds out the disposition of the key players. A shift on any one side precipitates movement in the others, affecting both peninsular and regional stability. Now that North Korea has made clear that it is “going for broke” in developing and refining a nuclear deterrent, it’s not surprising that the US and South Korea have thrown down the gauntlet in response by jointly agreeing to deploy an anti-missile system.
Unfortunately, this prospective deployment has China – and, to a lesser extent, Russia – up in arms by exposing the vulnerability of their strategic missiles, while simultaneously discouraging diplomatic participation in resolving the crisis. Ironically, as a border state potentially in the line of fire, the more the crisis escalates, the greater the risk to Chinese security.
From the start of six-party talks more than a decade ago, the expectation was that the above powers could reach a compromise with North Korea, the presumptive beneficiary of security assurances, diplomatic recognition by the US and Japan as well as assistance for its moribund economy in exchange for terminating its nuclear programme. However, this expectation has proved illusory while increasingly severe UN Security Council sanctions have only hardened Pyongyang’s resolve.
Inasmuch as the resumption of US-North Korean negotiations is conditioned on putting the nuclear issue back on the table (which Pyongyang has refused to do), Thaad’s deployment lessens Beijing’s incentive to help break the logjam and makes the region more, rather than less, unstable.
John Kotch, a political historian, is a specialist in US security policy towards Korea