South Korea divided over THAAD

South Korea divided over THAAD

With Seoul and Washington poised to initiate official talks over the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense asset on the peninsula, intense debate is raging over the diplomatic and military consequences of the deployment.

The debate has been escalating with China and Russia expressing vehement opposition to the installment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system that the U.S. Forces Korea wants to better cope with North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.

Proponents argue that China’s arguments against THAAD are misplaced, and that from a strictly military standpoint, an addition of the missile defense system is necessary to maintain a robust deterrence against the unpredictable regime in Pyongyang.

Opponents, however, argue that the move by the allies toward deploying THAAD here could be a “strategic mistake” as the deployment could strain ties between Seoul and Beijing, and between Washington and Beijing, as well as escalate Cold War-like tensions in Northeast Asia.

Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore said that THAAD, should it be deployed here, would help advance the allies’ missile defense and early warning capabilities.

“THAAD would provide another layer of defense for South Korea,” he said. “Notwithstanding its political significance in terms of U.S. strategic reassurance for the defense of South Korea, at the operational level, it will significantly improve joint U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) early warning capabilities through a sophisticated radar system, and ultimately, strengthen South Korea’s evolving ballistic missile shield.”

He added that Beijing’s key concern vis-a-vis THAAD would be that the new missile defense system could be employed to undercut China’s missile capabilities. He also pointed out that while China remains opposed to THAAD, it does not duly address Pyongyang’s missile threats.

“Beijing’s key strategic concern is that the THAAD system could potentially constrain the military effectiveness of Chinese ballistic missiles, particularly in a potential conflict with Japan,” he said.

“The downgrade of its missile capabilities, from the Chinese strategic perspective, would then likely result in a regional arms race. While Beijing opposes THAAD, interestingly, it does not point to the root causes for its deployment — North Korean ballistic missiles. Indeed, Beijing has been virtually silent on North Korean ballistic missile threat.”

Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the U.S.-based think tank RAND Corporation, noted that Beijing appears to be trying to influence what should be Seoul’s independent defense choices, with the argument that THAAD would undermine its security interests.

“(Given that THAAD cannot directly threaten China) Chinese complaints about THAAD have more to do with China trying to establish a precedent of influencing ROK defense choices than with China trying to protect its core interests,” he said.

“The ROK likely does not want to set a precedent in allowing China to dictate the military capabilities that the ROK can acquire.”

Bennett also challenged China’s repeated argument that “when pursuing its own security, one country should not impair others’ security interests.”

“Why then has China deployed offensive ballistic missiles that could cause serious damage in Korea? Did that Chinese choice not endanger Korean security, especially if China insists that Korea have no defense against the Chinese threat?”

Opponents like Kim Heung-kyu, diplomacy professor at Ajou University, said that the deployment of THAAD here would be a “strategically wrong choice.”

“The decision to deploy THAAD to Korea would create a situation where South Korea would be hurled into the center of the Sino-U.S. rivalry,” he said.

“Should the discussions on the deployment make progress, peninsular situations would be dictated by the U.S.’ position, and South Korea would be forced to absorb China’s (negative) response on its own.”

Yang Gab-yong, the head researcher of the Institute of China Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, said that political and military tensions that might be caused by the deployment of THAAD could hurt bilateral ties in various other areas including social and cultural exchanges, and trade.

He also warned that THAAD would pose a major hurdle to Seoul’s key foreign policy initiatives such as ones that build trust with Pyongyang and promote peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

“There could be diplomatic losses with the deployment of THAAD, as China may think Korea will eventually take the side of the U.S.,” he said.

“And hard-politics issues such as military-related ones would dominate all the other areas of cooperation, damaging Seoul-Beijing ties. A military rivalry — reminiscent of the Cold War — could also reemerge — something China does not want to see unfold.”


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