Thaad’s real significance
The decision to install the powerful U.S. antimissile system was prompted by heightened nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. Seoul has chosen to deploy the battery to reinforce its defense and heighten national security and public safety. The discussions should be focused on the efficacy of the missile defense system and other options to strengthen deterrence of North Korean attacks, including redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and even nuclear weapons development, as some politicians and experts suggest.
These discussions should have been addressed before Seoul reached a decision to deploy Thaad in South Korea. Instead, the decision was abruptly announced after Seoul had maintained an ambiguous attitude on the issue and without sufficient discussion and coordination with its people as well as with neighboring China.
Beijing’s oversensitive reaction to the deployment suggests strongly that Seoul appeared negligent in talking the issue through in both formal and informal channels.
As a result, an overly sudden decision has brought protests from the region picked to host the Thaad battery and opposition from China. Worse, local politicians and the media have stirred public fears about potential economic retaliation from Beijing — even before it made any such move.
Some legislative novices even flew to Beijing and damaged our national dignity by debating a national security decision in and with another country.
Considering Korea’s extraordinary geopolitical circumstances, Korea must come up with a more subtle policy towards China through a better understanding of the colossal country. The controversy over Thaad could be a turning point.
China cannot carry out spiteful trade sanctions as it did in 2000 when it barred imports of two key South Korean products — cellular phones and polyethylene — in retaliation for Seoul’s tariffs on garlic from China.
China is now a key part of the World Trade Organization and obliged to play a responsible role as the world’s largest trader. As this year’s host for the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in September, China will have to address the rise of protectionist trade practices and the wave of anti-globalization sentiment. Therefore, China is in a position to set a good example.
China cannot afford friction with major trading partners. It still relies on Korean intermediary product imports to manufacture its own products for export.
It could encourage local governments to take non-tariff actions against Korea to curb tourism or the proliferation of Korean cultural content or K-pop performances. But if that happens, we could always file complaints with the WTO over unjust trade actions that go against international norms.
Since China’s dramatic opening to the world in the 1970s, it steadily built up its power under the famous slogan by leader Deng Xiaoping to “bide time and hide capacities.” With its newfound economic power and pride, former president Hu Jintao pledged a “peaceful rise.” Current President Xi Jinping outright seeks the “Chinese dream” to revive the civilization’s past glory.
The country has been pursuing the ambitious New Silk Road, or the One Belt, One Road project, and created a new regional development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to finance it and put China back at the center of the global stage. It has been aggressive fighting U.S. influence, which threatens its campaign for hegemony in East Asia.
Beijing vehemently opposes the deployment of the Thaad system even though it knows the battery does not pose any threat. Its position could be better understood in the context of its fight for regional hegemony. Conflicts of interest between Beijing and Washington in various fields over China’s ambition to expand influence in the region and America’s so-called Pivot to Asia policy are inevitable as the two countries continue their hegemonic contest.
Seoul was forced to make tough diplomatic choices over the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and China-led AIIB. Korea needs extraordinary diplomatic skills to balance its traditional alliance with the United States as well as its strategic partnership with China. The U.S. and China are interlocked for mutual economic benefit. Their conflicts won’t develop into a full face-off. We could find and keep our diplomatic footing in such a context.
Last week, Standard & Poor’s upgraded South Korea’s sovereign credit rating and put it on par with the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. It concluded that Korea’s geopolitical risks remain stable despite North Korea’s provocations. That assessment underscores the importance of stability and national security.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug.17, Page 28
*The author, a former finance ministry, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.