China has strongly opposed the proposed deployment of the US missile system, ‘Theatre High Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD) in South Korea. It has argued that the US should strongly reconsider any action that jeopardizes another nation’s “legitimate national security interests”[i] before taking such action. China has expressed its displeasure by taking a number of actions against South Korea, including capping the number of tourists, rejecting cosmetics imports and cancelling performances of South Korean artistes without any explanation. There is no official ban but as Sumi Jo, one of the sopranos whose performance was cancelled said, “that’s the beauty of the Chinese government, they never say anything”.[ii] The US has expressly declared that the missile in South Korea is meant to target only North Korea but China is insistent that it goes “far beyond the defence needs of the Korean peninsula”.[iii] It is important to know more about both the missile and the geopolitical situation to understand China’s vehement reaction.
What is the THAAD?
The THAAD (or Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) is a missile defense system that can detect and neutralize short and medium range ballistic missiles. The missile does not have a warhead. Instead, it rotates spirally upon launch, generating an enormous amount of kinetic energy which destroys the target upon collision. The US has tested it as part of a three layer network- the AEGIS missile is designed to neutralize missiles in space, the THAAD at the re-entry stage and the Patriot PAC-3 at short range. It has an estimated range of 150-200 km and can reach an altitude of 25 km.[iv] It has a radar detection range of 1000-2000 km and it is this aspect that particularly worries the Chinese.[v] The THAAD Missile uses the X-band radar, popularly used for defense tracking since the shorter wavelengths permit higher resolution of tracked objects. This allows target discrimination apart from mere identification.
Political Flux – Rise of the Right
Donald Trump’s comments regarding an inward looking policy during the Presidential election campaign have caused great uncertainty in both Japan and South Korea. Between, South Korea and Japan, there are around 80,000 US soldiers[vi] posted on the ground, apart from the defense equipment supplied by the United States. His campaign rhetoric suggested that the allies should foot a larger share of the costs, even floating the fantastic idea of them developing their own nuclear weapons. Ever since the Second World War and the Korean War, these two nations have enjoyed the benefit of the American security umbrella but faith has definitely been shaken in the past year.
However, despite bold rhetoric during the election, US President Donald Trump has given due importance to the region, calling his first security briefing on North Korea as well as making statements like “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”[vii] Secretary of Defense, Mattis has chosen to visit both South Korea and Japan to reassure them of US support but new negotiations suggest that the extent of support remains uncertain. This is his first international visit and signifies the importance of this region to the Trump administration.[viii]
Compounding potential change in US policy, both Japan and South Korea have been witnessing the rise of right-wing conservative parties. Japan has famously abandoned its historic pacifist role, amended its Constitution and is witnessing increasingly faster militarization. It seems to be preparing for the contingency of a power vacuum in the region with the US taking a backseat. South Korea is facing disillusionment with the ruling party since the President Park Guen Hye was impeached by the Parliament after a series of absurd scandals.[ix]The acting President and current Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn is proceeding with negotiations for the deployment of the THAAD missile. This is most likely to be supported by the next President as well. The Conservative party is considered the frontrunner in the upcoming elections. It is suspected that North Korea has not launched any new missiles since October 2016 to avoid provocations which could strengthen the conservative party further.[x]
North Korea’s Nuclear Adventure
North Korea has been building up its nuclear capability at a breakneck pace. UN Security Council Resolutions and intensification of economic sanctions multiple times have failed to have an impact on North Korea. President Kim Jong Un’s New Year address to the nation stated that they are close to launching an ICBM. US satellite imagery shows that the North Korean plutonium reactor in Yongbyon has been restarted as well.[xi] In February 2016, North Korea launched a satellite into space, which was widely seen as a test of long-range ballistic missile technology.[xii] March 2016 saw the launch of a missile with a solid fuel rocket engine,[xiii]which allows faster deployment and greater mobility. In September 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth and biggest nuclear test till date. North Korea deploys an unverified number of short, medium, intermediate and long range missiles. With over a 9000 km range, KN-08 and Taepo Dong 2 comfortably cover all of India, Europe and large parts of the US. This capacity coupled with North Korea’s volatility is a cause of concern not only for its immediate neighbours but across the world.
“There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD other than North Korea if they’re engaged in something that’s offensive,” Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence has said.[xiv]
The United States has been rather explicit that the THAAD missile will target only North Korea. The aim of any military is to go beyond the adversary’s neutralization capabilities. The US has already deployed THAAD units in both Hawaii and Guam to protect those areas from potential North Korean attacks. By deploying the THAAD missile across the Pacific Ocean, the US is simply creating a large number of redundancies.
The US argument that China does not need to be concerned about the deployment rings hollow. The THAAD does allow the US to monitor developments in China as well as North Korea. The 1000 km radius of the THAAD radar allows US to monitor activity over a part of the heavily populated the Chinese mainland. The US already relies heavily on C4IS as a force multiplier. The THAAD missile will increase its capability marginally although the advantage will not be a significant jump over its existing capabilities.
“China has no intention of engaging in an arms race with any country, but it will resolutely defend its security interests.”[xv] China’s military has been playing catch up with the US even though they claim they are not interested in an arms race. The deployment of THAAD in South Korea questions China’s image of itself as a regional hegemon. Apart from the enhanced US military capability, China is taking such strong action as a response to this perceived loss of influence.
South Korean concerns about North Korea are strongly justified. It already has some shorter range PAC-3 Patriot missiles but the THAAD will equip it against missiles at the re-entry level as well, adding another layer to the defense. China itself has installed a new radar at a missile base in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, in northeastern China to monitor the increased North Korean activities, apart from its anti ballistic capabilities.[xvi] It is undisputed that the North Korean threat is real. China also does have some justified objections to further militarization of the Korean peninsula. The loss of the recent bonhomie that China and South Korea have been sharing is too high a cost to pay. Any progress on North Korea can only be made through a united front between China and South Korea. China should reconsider its objections and sanctions against South Korea, and instead try working with them to halt the nuclear proliferation in North Korea.
[i] China cites concerns on U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, Feb 25th, 2016, Reuters, Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-north-korea-idUSKCN0VY2C9.
[ii] Amy Qin, 3 Performances by Sumi Jo, Korean Soprano, Canceled in China, Jan 23, 2017, New York Times, Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/world/asia/sumi-jo-soprano-maria-callas.html
[iii] Supra 1.
[v] China Military Online, PLA Daily: U.S., ROK must stop deployment of THAAD missile battery, 29th July, 2016, Available at http://english.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/pla-daily-commentary/2016-07/29/content_7181295.htm
[vi] Phil Stewart and Nobuhiro Kubo, Trump’s defense chief heads to Asia, eying China, North Korea threat, Feb 1st, 2017, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-mattis-asia-idUSKBN15G3FG
[vii] @realdonaldtrump, 3rd Jan, 2017, Twitter.
[viii] Reuters, Supra note 1.
[ix] The Guardian, Half a million South Koreans celebrate impeaching of president Park Geun-hye, Dec 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/half-a-million-south-koreans-celebrate-impeaching-of-president-park-geun-hye
[x] Brad Lendon, US Defense Secretary Mattis: Only North Korea need fear missile defense, Feb 2nd, 2017, CNN, Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/02/politics/us-defense-secretary-mattis-south-korea-trip/
[xii] By Tony Munroe and Jack Kim, North Korea’s Kim says close to test launch of ICBM, Jan 2, 2017, Reuters, Available at http://in.mobile.reuters.com/article/specialEvents6/idINKBN14L0RL.
[xiii] Axel Berkofsky, May 6th, 2016, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs: Bluffing or really getting better?, Available at http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/north-koreas-nuclear-and-missile-programs-bluffing-or-really-getting-better-15073
[xiv] Brad Lendon, US Defense Secretary Mattis: Only North Korea need fear missile defense, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/02/politics/us-defense-secretary-mattis-south-korea-trip/
[xv] Supra 1
[xvi] Elizabeth Shim, Report: Two North Korea ICBMs placed in position, Jan 23, 2017, Available at http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/01/23/Report-Two-North-Korea-ICBMs-placed-in-position/8331485181292/