China should not fear US missile deployment in South Korea
Tong Zhao says concerns about the Thaad missile defence may be misplaced, and it would be in Beijing’s best interests to join talks on the system, to help ease regional tensions
North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests have catalysed negotiations between Washington and Seoul on deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system to South Korea. Washington and Seoul hope the missile system can provide an additional layer of protection for South Korea and the US troops stationed there by intercepting North Korean missiles at high altitudes, thus serving as a complement to South Korea’s existing low-altitude missile defence systems.
Beijing has long opposed such deployment out of concern that it is part of a US strategy to build a regional missile defence network that could intercept Chinese missiles headed for the US and hence blunt China’s nuclear retaliation capability and undermine deterrence.
In recent months, Chinese official reaction to the US and South Korean decision to move forward on Thaad negotiations has been particularly harsh. There is even discussion in China that if Washington and Seoul go ahead and deploy the defence system, China may need to further build up its nuclear capability, risking a counter-reaction from the United States. Avoiding this kind of negative action-reaction cycle is critical for regional stability. It is also a necessary precondition for these countries to work together to address the more pressing security challenge faced by everyone: North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.
Many Chinese strategists seem to harbour major misunderstandings about what Thaad could do if deployed in South Korea. They believe it is best suited to intercept medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which have ranges of between 500km and 5,500km. Because the entire Korean peninsula is only about 900km from north to south, these strategists argue that the system won’t be able to defend against the primary missile threat that South Korea faces – short-range missiles from North Korea. As a result, they suspect that Thaad deployment is really about undermining China’s strategic security interests. A particular concern is that the radar associated with the system might be used to monitor Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from the northeast and from submarines in the Yellow Sea.
In fact, Thaad is designed to defeat both short- and medium-range missiles and most tests have so far involved intercepting short-range missiles. Besides, North Korea could use medium- or intermediate-range missiles to strike South Korean targets by firing them at a higher angle, like a lob shot in tennis. Missile attacks of this kind cannot be addressed by South Korea’s current defences. To make matters worse, nuclear warheads on an incoming missile can be set to detonate at high altitude, but South Korea’s existing missile defence systems are capable only of conducting low-altitude intercepts.
Chinese experts’ concerns about Thaad’s radar are not unfounded, but it is important that decision-makers in Beijing have an accurate understanding of the extent of the impact on China. With China deploying an increasing number of land-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are designed to penetrate US missile defences, the overall impact of the radar on China’s capability to strike the United States will be very limited. Moreover, the vast majority of China’s ICBMs are reportedly deployed in regions other than the northeast, while China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines are believed to be deployed mostly in the South China Sea. Thaad’s radar is incapable of monitoring any of these missiles.
For South Korea, the ever-increasing North Korean nuclear and missile threat is becoming a matter of life or death. With recent threats from Pyongyang of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, the fear of North Korea’s nuclear missiles is greater than ever in the minds of South Koreans. Seoul has long wanted to fill the gap in its missile defences. But its indigenous efforts won’t reach fruition until around 2023 at the earliest. Thaad can be deployed relatively quickly.
Moreover, it is actually less capable than the alternative system of Standard Missile-3 interceptors that the US might deploy in South Korea, showing that Seoul and Washington are indeed seeking to protect themselves rather than undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. Under these circumstances, China should avoid unnecessarily undermining its strategic relations with Seoul or Washington and show more flexibility on the issue.
Washington recently invited Beijing to discuss issues related to the potential Thaad deployment and indicated a willingness to offer a technical briefing. Beijing would benefit from accepting the offer. At the very least, China would not lose anything by attending such talks and would demonstrate its open and proactive attitude towards seeking a diplomatic solution. In practice, the talks would provide
China with an opportunity to gain valuable insights and perhaps even exert some influence.
China could, for example, use such talks to put forward proposals that would mitigate the negative impact of Thaad on China’s interests. For instance, China could inquire about the technical feasibility of using South Korea’s existing radars to guide the system’s interceptors without introducing a new radar. Also, Washington has stated that the radar will be deployed in its “terminal” mode. Under this mode, the radar’s range will be much shorter than under the forward-based mode, which China feels is threatening.
Beijing could therefore ask Washington to propose possible technical measures that could verifiably increase the difficulty of Washington or Seoul switching the radar from terminal mode to forward-based mode. Even if Washington cannot provide fully satisfactory solutions, Beijing could better understand Washington’s intentions by observing how US officials respond to its inquiries.
Beijing could also seek useful clarifications about the future of missile defence on the peninsula. For example, if Thaad is introduced, will Seoul continue to develop its indigenous missile defence system? If the answer is yes, would Thaad deployment only be a stop-gap measure? How many Thaad systems will Washington and Seoul deploy in South Korea, and approximately where will they be deployed?
On balance, it is clearly in China’s interests to have a dialogue with Washington, and possibly Seoul as well, over Thaad. Discussions are the most promising way for these countries to find a common solution that helps break the stalemate and avoids a new cycle of costly and dangerous military deployments.
Tong Zhao is an associate in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Programme based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy