Beijing hoping Seoul will slow down on missile shield, diplomat says
China’s new approach is to try and get deployment of THAAD put off, says source, in the hopes a new South Korean administration will cancel it
Beijing has changed its tone with Seoul in recent months, and has been attempting to persuade it to delay deploying a US-backed anti-missile system, according to a diplomatic source.
But analysts said that while China may be banking on a policy shift by the next South Korean government, the chances of such a change in course were slim.
Beijing was furious in early July when South Korean president Park Geun-hye agreed to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, which Washington and Seoul have said was designed to intercept missiles from the North. Beijing considers the THAAD system a threat at its doorstep.
Since then, attempts to negotiate with Chinese foreign ministry officials had been rebuffed by Beijing, said a South Korean diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the source said Beijing’s attitude changed after Park’s administration was rocked by a corruption scandal involving the president and her friend Choi Soon-sil. The scandal began brewing in late October, and prompted parliament to impeach Park on December 9.
“They [Chinese foreign ministry officials] are now willing to discuss THAAD issues with us,” the source said. “They used to be quite tough on this issue, but now they tell us that they understand South Korea’s security concerns over North Korea’s nuclear programme, but hope South Korea will not deploy THAAD too fast.”
The diplomat did not give reasons for the shift, but observers said Beijing could be trying to win time and room for possible policy changes if one of South Korea’s opposition parties – which have publicly opposed the THAAD deployment – takes office.
“At least there are possibilities to make a change, but if the deployment is finished, nothing can be changed,” said Sun Xingjie, a professor of international relations at Jilin University.
Moon Jae-in, a former opposition leader and now a front-runner in the presidential race, has signalled that he would rethink the deployment decision, which he said should wait until the next administration is in place.
However, analysts have said it would be not easy for Beijing to convince Seoul to give up THAAD.
“Though the deployment of THAAD is the president’s decision, it is supported by many people in South Korea, who firmly believe that North Korea is the biggest threat to their national security,” said Li Kaisheng from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
On Thursday, the US and South Korea both pledged to push ahead with the deployment during a visit by the new US defence secretary, Jim Mattis.
“Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Mattis warned Pyongyang on Friday as he wrapped up his two-day visit in Seoul.
His South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo said Mattis’ visit sent a clear message of strong US support and “communicates the strongest warning to North Korea”, Reuters reported.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Friday reiterated China’s opposition to the THAAD deployment.
“We do not believe this move will be conducive to resolving the Korean peninsula nuclear issue or to maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula,” Lu said.
Lee Kyu-tae, a specialist on geopolitics at South Korea’s Catholic Kwandong University, said the THAAD system might be a bargaining chip for Washington and Seoul, to press Beijing to take further steps against Pyongyang.
“For South Korea, the security threats from North Korea still exist, unless China steps out in a more proactive way to press North Korea over the nuclear issues.”
Lee also said that given its deep military relationship with Washington and the threats from the North, Seoul would not simply suspend the deployment no matter who the next president was.
Under the initial plan, the THAAD system would be deployed by the end of this year, but both Washington and Seoul said earlier that they would like to speed up the process and finish it as early as June.
Meanwhile, the deployment process faces a bumpy ride in South Korea. Lotte Group, one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, owns the golf course in the Seongju region where THAAD is due to be set up. It said last month that it needed to hold a board meeting in mid-February to seek approval for the land-exchange deal with the South Korean military, according to the Chosun Ilbo.
The decision by Lotte came after Chinese tax and fire safety authorities launched surprise inspections of Lotte’s stores and facilities in China in late November.
Lotte later said that it would abide by its agreement with the military.