Can China use Trump-Kim denuclearisation plan to rid South Korea of US missile system?
Beijing could raise issue of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits the city on Thursday
China is likely to use the joint statement by the US and North Korea on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula to push for the removal of a US missile defence system in South Korea, although achieving such a goal could take time, analysts said.
Beijing has said previously that the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) in South Korea caused “serious damage to China’s strategic security interests”.
Shanghai-based military commentator Ni Lexiong said that as “China has done the US a great favour” in taking North Korea to the negotiating table, it might raise the THAAD removal issue during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the city on Thursday.
Seoul agreed to introduce the defence system in 2016, citing the threat of North Korea’s rapidly developing missile programme, and its installation was completed last year.
“There is the possibility that THAAD was a measure to pressure China into cooperating on sanctions against North Korea, because technically the US has many other weapons that could hurt China more,” Ni said.
“If this logic stands, China can definitely ask to have the system removed.”
Professor Li Bin, a specialist in arms control at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said, however, that denuclearisation remained the primary goal and the issue of THAAD’s removal would be tackled only when, or if, North Korea had given up its long-range missiles, which is set to be a long and complicated process.
“The joint statement does not specify the goals or timetable for denuclearisation, and missiles are not mentioned at all,” he said.
“It is unlikely the US would agree to remove THAAD easily,” Li said. “So a practical approach [for China] is to take steps to minimise THAAD’s military impact, which would be costly but possible. Relying upon oneself is better than relying upon others.”
China’s main concern is that the US missile defence system’s powerful radar could be used to monitor its missile activities. In retaliation for its installation, Beijing imposed unofficial sanctions on South Korea’s tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries, as well as some South Korean companies operating in China.
Relations between the two neighbours only began to thaw late last year when South Korean President Moon Jae-in made a promise that THAAD would not harm China’s strategic security interests.
Military commentator Zhou Chenming said Beijing might seek to use the missile issue as a bargaining chip in the future.
“Although China strongly opposes THAAD, what Beijing really cares about is whether the US will deploy it in more countries or with allies like Taiwan,” he said.
If the Korean peninsula were likened to “a dying patient with many infections”, the THAAD issue would be nothing more than “a small early-stage tumour”, Zhou said
“A good doctor would focus on [the patient’s] acute symptoms … instead of just cutting out one tumour.”
Another announcement made by US President Donald Trump after his meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un was that he would suspend all US military drills in South Korea and consider the removal of tens of thousands of US troops currently stationed in the country.
If the soldiers were to return home, the THAAD system would almost certainly leave with them, Zhou said, adding that the mere fact the US had so many troops in South Korea was itself a security concern for Beijing.
Li said that in view of the fact that Trump’s comments contradicted what US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said on Monday it was clear there was still a lot of uncertainty.
“China won’t make THAAD a separate and distracting issue amid the denuclearisation and peace process on the peninsula,” he said.
“Because progress towards denuclearisation and peace is in China’s fundamental security interests.”