THAAD seen through eyes of China, Russia, US


Why is China so upset at South Korea’s decision to allow the advanced U.S. anti-missile battery on its soil as to threaten all-out retaliation?

Is Beijing’s position identical to that of Russia, its former Cold War ally and rival, now being on the same side once again against the U.S.?

Are the interests of Seoul and Washington as coincidental as they appear?

These questions are pivotal to understanding the changing the dynamic triggered by the Seoul-Washington decision to deploy the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) system.

First, let’s look at the stances of the two allies.

Seoul finds itself in an untenable position. As it explained to China and Russia, Seoul feels naked to North Korea’s growing threat through its nuclear weapons and missiles.

Regarding the insecurity felt by its people, the government led by President Park Geun-hye was under pressure to do something. Park obviously knew the THAAD card should best remain as an option. But it couldn’t find the ground to reject the U.S. request to bring it in for the protection of its troops stationed in Korea.

With THAAD coming, Park now can say that it is a self-protective measure, which is not an entirely wrong statement. One THAAD battery heading for Korea won’t cover the entire southern half of the Korean Peninsula but would be enough to protect U.S. bases. The U.S. forces that survive North Korean missile attacks would be joined by reinforcements from the U.S. mainland. It should be remembered that in the event of war, civilians are considered collateral with lower priority than military assets in the order of protection.

That explains why the Seoul metro area, the population center, are excluded from the THAAD coverage. Already they are within the range of thousands of short-range North Korean rockets that are expected to go into action during the first hours of conflict. Simply put, the two’s interests partially dovetail as long as they do: THAAD is supposed to strengthen the survivability of the existing U.S. troops for regrouping and accommodating reinforcements, which Seoul takes as the U.S. commitment to helping it fight against the North.

Then, what makes China unhappy? It can be explained from two aspects.

First, however Seoul may try to explain that THAAD is a defensive measure against the North, it falls on Beijing’s deaf ears because the system is too close for comfort, feeling its key cities and military assets on the borderline with the North exposed to intrusive U.S. electronic eyes that come as a key component of the system. Then, it would point out that THAAD will be operated by Americans with Seoul providing the land for the system to be located. Therefore, Seoul’s guarantees sound unpersuasive to Beijing.

Then China considers Washington its rival with their interests clashing on a wide front now focusing on South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. feels the same, as its pivot to Asia policy is the natural growth of Washington’s long-term identification of China as its rival. China, brimming with confidence from its growing economic and military power, is trying to revert to its pre-Opium War era when it was the supreme power in Asia. From its humiliating experiences, it is strongly suspicious of western forces.

Russia, the U.S.’s former rival, has its own case of paranoia that is not entirely the product of its own imagination. Of course, much of its current stance stems from the same fear that China has about the world’s only superpower.

It apparently doesn’t take on face value U.S. claims that THAAD deployment is conditional on the threat of the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), meaning when it disappears, they will be removed. Moscow has heard the same tune before. When the U.S. built anti-missile systems in Romania and Poland over Russia’s objections, the U.S. cited Iranian threats but they remain or show no signs of being dismantled one year after the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal that has lifted sanctions on Tehran. Then, Moscow may well remember the Reagan era when it was forced into a massive arms race with the U.S. that proved to be the straw that broke the back of the camel that was the Soviet Union.

U.S. President Reagan’s pet project was the strategic defense initiative (SDI) or Star Wars that provided the framework for the U.S. efforts to build its missile defense (MD).

The U.S. refused to re-sign the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Russia after its 30-year term expired in 2002. The ABM treaty bans the development of missile interceptors so the U.S. is free to develop interceptors that work in space as well.

If there are a couple jumps in logic, one conclusion is that if the U.S. completes an indefatigable shield that protects itself against any missile attacks, where would it leave us?

It is extensively agreed that the fear of mutual assured destruction prevented the U.S. and Soviet Union from making a first strike during the Cold War era.

Wouldn’t the U.S. feel an itch to strike first, if it has no fear of such a retaliatory attack? Especially, if a character like Donald Trump is in the White House. Maybe out of his love for Russian President Putin, he may push the buttons to hurl missiles at China.

Often, war starts at the misinterpretation of the other’s move so the answer to this question lies as much with the U.S. as with Russia or China. It all comes down to how much the three trust each other. As things stand now, little to say the best.

This lack of trust also explains why there is so much fuss over THAAD in Korea.

Finding a creative way out of this dilemma will serve as touchstone to whether Korea is a prawn that tames three whales ― U.S., China and Russia ― a variation from the old saying of “the prawn whose back is broken in a whales’ fight,” which got Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in trouble for self-flattery.

Written by Oh Young-jin

Oh Young-jin is The Korea Times’ chief editorial writer.


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