China puts on the pressureChina has intensified its diplomatic and media attacks on the Republic of Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system. At the United Nations, the Chinese delegation refused for weeks to support any UN Security Council statement condemning North Korea’s missile tests unless the United States agreed to language blaming Thaad for Pyongyang’s action (a ridiculous supposition that the other UNSC members rejected).
At the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, the Chinese media and foreign ministry stunned the Korean delegation by ramping up public and private pressure on Thaad. In the bilateral Korea-China meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned President Park Geun-hye that there would be strategic consequences in the two countries’ relations if she did not handle Thaad “properly.”
Why is China doing this? It is not because Thaad poses a significant military threat to China’s missile forces. Thaad’s radar is aimed at North Korea, and though notionally it might be able to shift direction towards China someday, the PLA’s intercontinental ballistic missiles could still easily avoid Thaad’s range and fire on the United States. Xi told Park that the real issue is “strategic,” but what does that mean?
The answer is fairly clear: Beijing has assumed that the U.S. network of bilateral alliances in Asia will fade as Chinese economic and military power grows.
In numerous academic and official discussions with Chinese counterparts about the future of Northeast Asia, I have frequently heard the Chinese side posit that the U.S.-South Korea alliance will be on the “wrong side of history” (i.e., won’t last forever). Seoul’s determination to deploy Thaad over Chinese objections undercuts that assumption and demonstrates that the U.S.-Korea alliance might have much deeper geopolitical roots than Beijing assumes. There is also the political factor within China. The Chinese state-owned media whipped up a nationalistic frenzy against Thaad with the expectation that Korea would not agree to deployment. Backing down from that is not so easy for a Chinese leadership that is highly attuned to netizens’ anger at the government.
Ultimately, I suspect the main reason for China’s continued and even mounting pressure on Korea over Thaad is because Beijing sees continued divisions within Korean society. The German strategist Karl von Clausewitz argued that one of the most important attributes of national power is internal cohesion, while Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Mao have sought to neutralize enemies by dividing them from within whenever possible. The Thaad issue has unfortunately become entangled with Korea’s internal divisions over identity, North Korea and the United States. China’s decision not to back down on Thaad is thus being fueled by the hysterical stories in Korea by journalists and pundits who have chosen this issue to try to oppose the Park administration and mobilize the left.
The reality, of course, is that Korea has every right to defend itself against an increasing North Korean missile threat. Over the past seven years North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and 72 kinetic tests of missiles or related systems. The North’s missiles inventory is much larger, more mobile, and more dangerous. China does not have an answer to that problem. The South Korean government does — enhanced deterrence and defense — with Thaad as a central pillar.
What will happen if Park stands firm, as I believe she will? Relations with China might be tense for a while longer, but once Beijing accepts that there will not be a reversal on Thaad, then the Chinese system will have to recalibrate in order to defend its larger geostrategic interests. Beijing is playing to weaken the U.S. alliance system in Asia, not strengthen it. Stubborn pressure on Seoul long after it is obvious that Thaad is locked in would only increase the risk to China that the U.S.-Korea alliance will strengthen even more.
Xi will have to find a way to mitigate domestic furor, but that is exactly what he did when it was apparent that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan would not accede to Xi’s conditions for a summit meeting. He will do so again with Thaad. Over the longer-term Korea (and the United States) have every interest in a productive Korea-China relationship — and so does Beijing.
And what if Seoul caves to Chinese pressure on Thaad?
First, Korea’s ability to deter and defeat North Korean missile threats will weaken as Pyongyang’s arsenal grows.
Second, Beijing will conclude that it can extract major concessions from Seoul on issues of the most fundamental importance to Korean national security going forward. What might come next? Pressure on Seoul instead of North Korea if there is another attack like the Cheonan? Criticism and interference in future procurement or deployment plans by Korea? Demands that Seoul comply with Chinese conditions for unification?
Third, Beijing will begin to assume that there are no consequences to China’s geopolitical interests if it fails to pressure the North to curb its dangerous provocations. Fourth, assessments in the United States and across Asia about the longer-term viability of the U.S.-Korea alliance will turn pessimistic. And finally, Kim Jong-un will brag to his National Defense Council that Seoul is unable to defend itself, while he is free to develop whatever weapons systems he desires.
I assume that the Blue House has thought through all of these implications and will stand firm. There may be a few more tense meetings with Chinese leaders, but the larger impact will be to demonstrate that Korea is principled, predictable, and prepared to defend itself. That signal will be critical for the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Asia as a whole.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.