Why the real quarrel between Beijing and Seoul isn’t about THAAD

Cary Huang says China’s need to keep North Korea as a communist ally leaves South Korea with little choice but to turn to America to bolster its defence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2017, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2017, 7:33pm

The bitter confrontation between China and South Korea in the wake of Seoul’s adoption of a US-built anti-missile defence system, designed to protect against a nuclear attack from the North, has seen relations sink to their lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992.

Only two years ago, then South Korean leader Park Geun-hye stood alongside President Xi Jinping (習近平) on the rostrum of Tiananmen Square to review a military parade commemorating the end of the second world war, in defiance of protests from Washington and Tokyo. The warm feelings of goodwill have all but faded. Today, the tension is sparking fear that the politically divided Korean peninsula might become a lightning rod of rivalry between China and a US-led regional alliance.

In response to the deployment of the US-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system on Korean soil, China has launched or instigated a series of protests and retaliation, including the boycott of Korean products from cosmetics to TV soap operas, and the threat of a suspension of diplomatic ties.

The two countries have good reason to maintain warm relations, in view of their close historical bond, deep economic integration and shared aspirations for regional stability. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and a critical stakeholder in many bilateral and regional issues. Beijing also sorely needs Seoul’s help to stabilise the fragile situation in northeast Asia, in the face of its rivalry with Japan and the challenges posed by self-ruling Taiwan.

Beijing’s bottom line is to keep the Kim dynasty afloat

However, while South Korea relies heavily on China economically, for military protection against a nuclear-armed North Korea, it has to turn to the US, given China’s reluctance to tame its communist ally.

Pyongyang has stepped up its missile testing, violating international law and defying UN Security Council resolutions. In some ways, the THAAD missile interception system is the only choice for Seoul to protect its people.

China, of course, fears that the US might also use it as a tool to contain it militarily, as the system’s radar, which has a range of more than 2,000km, can peer deep into China’s territory.

Beijing and Seoul have many incentives to work out a solution to better accommodate each other’s core interests, as Pyongyang’s nuclear programme undermines the security of both. Why is this not happening?

How Kim Jong-un put us on a collision course with China

One big problem is that Beijing has been trying to balance efforts towards two contradictory goals – serving its geopolitical and ideological needs. On the one hand, Beijing wants to see a denuclearised Korean peninsula, but, on the other, it fears the loss of a communist ally.

Chinese strategists have long worried about the possible collapse of the reclusive state, leaving China without a buffer to US forces under a unified Korea. The last thing China’s communist leaders want to see is the collapse of one of the last few surviving communist regimes, as it might also undermine their own legitimacy at home. Beijing’s bottom line is keeping the Kim dynasty afloat to maintain a strategic ally as well as a token of communist rule.

China must take a hard line on both North and South Korea

But playing the role of sole patron and protector of one of the world’s most repressive regimes has cost China dearly, and led to the increasing distrust between it and most of its neighbours, including South Korea.

The crisis once again tells us that while the rules of realpolitik prevail in diplomacy, ideology still has a role to play in the post-cold-war era.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post