South Korean security caught in the US–China crossfire

Author: Kiho Kwon, Peace Network

The US–South Korea relationship is beginning to show clear signs of disagreement on the issue of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment. As the US aggressively pushes the need for this cutting-edge missile defense system, the South Korean government is becoming more reluctant to entertain its possibility. But US urgency on THAAD suggests that it is key to US strategy for coping with the rapidly changing security condition in the region — or, more explicitly, the massive expansion of Chinese military capabilities in the region.

South Korean Hyunmu-3 cruise missiles are displayed during a ceremony marking the anniversary of Armed Forces Day at a military airport near Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: AAP)

It is naive to consider the North Korea dilemma as the only driver of the THAAD controversy. The US claims that China has achieved significant developments in its long-range missile, nuclear deterrence, as well as cyber and space warfare capabilities. It is quite serious about managing the challenges that a rising China will bring.

But China is strongly opposed to the deployment of THAAD. While Chinese experts are indifferent about the rise of North Korea as a major nuclear threat, they publicly voice their worries about THAAD. Experts claim that the system can deter China’s Dong Peng-21 ‘carrier killer’ and Ju Lang-2 intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This would heavily dent the efficacy of the Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy in the region.

China has been persistently expanding its nuclear and missile arsenal. The Xi Jinping government has been quite stubborn on this issue. It designated the Second Artillery Corps as ‘the core of military strength’ in order to emphasise China’s nuclear and missile capabilities. But the Second Artillery Corps is deliberately vague about its military power. This uncertainty concerns the capabilities of the corps intermediate-range, short-range, intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It is generally accepted that China has a sufficient arsenal to pursue a limited deterrence strategy and is entering a stage of being able to launch missiles from multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

According to a report from the US Department of Defense, China’s nuclear and missile capabilities are at the core of its growing A2/AD strategy. Thus, the Chinese ballistic missile threat is the biggest problem for the US. And this is precisely the reason why America’s former defence secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Third Offset Strategy in November 2014.

The strategy consists of two major objectives: maintaining persistent forward presence and projection of power and exacting deterrence by denial and punishment. The US will also continue to project military force by enhancing the protection of key facilities against China’s ballistic and cruise missiles. On 28 January 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work announced that ‘we make significant investments in our: nuclear enterprise; new space capabilities; advanced sensors, communications and munitions for power projection in contested environments; missile defence; and cyber capabilities’.

Given US endeavours to employ THAAD in South Korea, Beijing’s next move is much easier to predict. China will increase its involvement in containing North Korean nuclear ambitions. This would be in order to prevent the US from rationalising its THAAD ambitions. It is only logical to assume that Washington would respond by re-emphasising its tri-lateral missile defence collaboration in eastern Asia to prepare for the likelihood of a North Korean crisis. Even China acknowledges that scenario is quite probable.

This multi-dimensional approach to understanding the THAAD controversy will prove worthwhile for South Korea as it contemplates its Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. The South Korean government has two viable options laid out before it: approving — perhaps even procuring — the US THAAD system or completely refusing it. The former would lead to a diplomatic eruption. China would take an aggressive stance and arm its militaries to nullify the THAAD system, with North Korea trailing close behind. But denying THAAD could be beneficial. South Korea could take the initiative in the Korean peninsula peace negotiations and perhaps in Northeast Asia as well.

It is likely that China will sincerely try to minimise the likelihood of another North Korean nuclear crisis — the last one gave the impetus for the THAAD controversy. This will in turn facilitate a multilateral approach to the North Korean quagmire. If such diplomatic endeavours do bring about meaningful results, it is possible that the political grounds for the US missile defence in eastern Asia can be eliminated. North Korean nuclear threats may also disappear. Of course, this path will require political finesse and ceaseless patience. After all, post-war rehabilitation and restoration missions are more difficult than the alternative.

Kiho Kwon is a Research Associate at the Peace Network, South Korea.

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