Thaad, a step in the right directionThe Park Geun-hye government of South Korea has caused Chinese president Xi Jinping and his coterie to gnash their teeth, while cementing the South Korea-U.S. alliance more than ever because of its slapdash approach to deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile defense system on the Korean peninsula. That said, the right-wing Park government has pivoted to the United States by snubbing Xi’s opposition to the deployment of the controversial Thaad system.
The first female president of South Korea became a strong advocate of Thaad to protect the nation and its people from the North’s nuclear threats.
Yet Park is poised to face a storm of criticism at home, particularly from the left, which contends the Park government became a sitting duck as soon as it decided to deploy the Thaad battery system. And much of the criticism implicates her friendship with the United States, despite the fact that whether to endorse Thaad or not has nothing to do with being pro-America or pro-China. To wit, it is as silly and unproductive as the question, ‘Who do you love more, mom or dad?’
In Beijing’s view, nevertheless, the main culprit behind the Thaad deployment is the United States, since President Park is not what she was one year ago. In 2015, Park stood alongside Xi on the reviewing stand at the podium of Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China was cautiously optimistic but unfortunately, Park’s gestures soon proved to be nothing more than a disappointment.
Now the conservative Park government has strategically given up on the so-called ‘Teflon diplomacy’ of not sticking entirely to either the United States or China, and it has taken the side of America instead of finding the right balance between the alliance and the partnership. Park’s rare presence at the anniversary was a put-on, after all.
South Korean security analysts began to take note of China’s extensive capability to damage South Korean economic interests after the Park government pulled its chestnuts out of the fire. Given that China is still South Korea’s single most important market and has become the largest buyer of South Korea’s national bonds (17.4 trillion won [$15.9 billion], or 18.1 percent of the total as of February 2016), there is no denying that Beijing might wield its economic power.
Several pillars of the two countries’ relationship, built after the historical diplomatic normalization, have started to fracture. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which the hopeless regime has tested for the fourth time in January of this year, has rapidly advanced. Experts and pundits in mainstream policy circles, most of whom studied in the United States, have grown bolder, pointing fingers at China over the failure of North Korea’s denuclearization.
The Thaad system has successfully functioned as the yeast to revive the long moribund North Korea, according to them. After all, China’s mellow reaction to denuclearization has been the catalyst that put oxygen into the Thaad controversies. China wants, it seems, South Korea to forget that the alliance with the brutal regime in Pyongyang is as close as “teeth and lips.”
It’s no coincidence that the Seoul government threw a Thaad stone into the East Asia waters, which, as a result, created ripples and strengthened Seoul-Washington military ties. Before making it happen, the United States has consistently magnified its military operational capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region through bilateral defense treaties with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines and cooperative arrangements with other partners. That’s why China is ratcheting up its criticism to press South Korea and the United States to comply with its demand that the decision to deploy the Thaad system be cancelled.
In the wake of the Thaad decision, some Chinese officials and opinion leaders, who are consistently distrustful of South Korean intentions on behalf of the United States, have been intemperate in their recent comments. During the Asean Regional Forum in Laos last month, for instance, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made little effort to hide Beijing’s unsavory feelings towards South Korea, which Beijing does not see as a trusted partner. So far, Seoul sees no evidence that the Thaad system is intended to monitor China. Besides, China needs to be reminded that it’s for South Korea to decide South Korean policy.
While China’s tirades against the anti-missile system are nearly unprintable, the technological accuracy and scientific integrity over the Thaad system per se is by no means higher than that of American beef controversy, which forced the whole nation into crisis in 2008.
The expectation in Beijing is that tensions over the Thaad will worsen the relationship with Seoul, and could draw South Korea closer to the U.S.-Japan alliance. To be frank, given that China cares more about maintaining the status quo on the peninsula than it cares about the denuclearization of North Korea, the Thaad deployment as an icebreaker of the status quo could be a step in the right direction.
America cannot help considering that its failure to provide a defense thus far could lead some to question its commitment to the security of its ally.
As a recent poll over the Thaad deployment demonstrates, a substantial majority of South Koreans do not mind the closeness of the president with the United States. Instead, they just want the president to speak the language ordinary citizens can understand — if she believes the government must address the Thaad controversies at home first.
*The author is the director with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.