Getting over Thaad
The author is a researcher of the Institute for National Security Strategy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has persistently opposed the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in South Korea. He made his first objection to the Thaad deployment when he visited Korea in July 2014. It was one year after U.S. Forces Korea Commander Curtis Scaparrotti testified before the Congress about the need to establish such a missile defense system here. Xi’s attitude remained unchanged when he met with President Park Geun-hye in March 2016.
As North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats deepened, the Thaad system was eventually installed in South Korea, which was followed by retaliations by China. Three years have passed since the deployment, but Xi’s stance remains unchanged. During his two summits with President Moon Jae-in last year, Xi did not forget to demand a “feasible solution” to the issue.
China has often retaliated against countries for a diplomatic or security issue. But the economic retaliations against South Korea are unusually heavy and long. Some say Beijing is treating Seoul too dismissively, but it may also mean that South Korea’s geopolitical value to China is actually quite great.
Before the United States established its missile defense policy during the presidency of Barack Obama in 2010, China was aware of the U.S. strategy to contain the rise of China and concluded that the Thaad missile batteries were a part of the strategy. In July 2019, China’s Defense White Paper stated that the Thaad system destroyed the strategic balance in the region and damaged the security interest of China.
But China should be more honest about why the Thaad deployment was done in the first place. In fact, Korean administrations in the past — under Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak — maintained the strategic ambiguity of “passive opposition” to the U.S. demand to join its missile defense regime. It was an effort to maintain stability and independence in the fierce diplomatic and security competition between the United States and China. But the Park Geun-hye administration abruptly changed its missile defense policy in a more aggressive way. That might have upset China.
Before and after the Thaad deployment, Seoul and Washington did their best to communicate with Beijing. Through summits and diplomatic and security channels, Korea repeatedly explained that the deployment was a self-defense measure against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and there was no intention or capability to harm China. The Obama administration reportedly proposed briefings on the Thaad system to China from 2015 to 2017, but the Chinese government turned down the proposal.
Then, the Moon administration declared the so-called “three Nos” through Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s speech at the National Assembly in October 2017. She said there will be “no additional deployment of the Thaad, no participation in the U.S.-led missile defense regime, and no formation of the Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance.” The Moon administration had to endure deepening criticisms that its diplomacy toward China was humiliating.
In fact, China earned many things thanks to the Thaad deployment. Beijing made it clear to Seoul that it cannot ignore China’s stance on security issues. Most of all, the Thaad system helps maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula — a key factor China values highly — given North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities. In other words, Thaad is not a disrupter. Stability is also possible when South Korea secures a proper deterrence power.
The U.S. position is clear. As the Thaad deployment was determined by the South Korea-U.S. alliance — and because it is not a threat to China — it is none of China’s business. The United States actually has more strategic assets other than the Thaad system to keep an eye on China. China also knows this well.
During a recent South Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit, Moon proposed that his New Southern and Northern policies and China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy be linked. Inappropriate economic retaliations for the Thaad deployment are not suitable any more.
In the meantime, Korea suffered many losses. China should feel content. It must no longer raise opposition to a decision of a sovereign country to defend itself.
Leaders of South Korea and China must wrap up their conflict over the Thaad deployment and lead the way to peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia in the New Year. Xi’s planned visit to South Korea during the first half of next year should serve as a starting point.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 31, Page 33