23 October 2016
The deployment of THAAD in South Korea represents a major setback in Beijing's continued efforts to secure the trust and friendship of Seoul. Photo: Reuters/US Department of Defense
The deployment of THAAD in South Korea represents a major setback in Beijing's continued efforts to secure the trust and friendship of Seoul. Photo: Reuters/US Department of Defense

The THAAD deployment: China’s diplomatic Waterloo

While the Hague ruling on the South China Sea dispute has remained the focus of international attention, another new development in East Asia has largely gone under the public radar.

This is the conclusion of a US-South Korea agreement, under which the United States will deploy a THAAD missile unit to the southeastern region of South Korea.

In fact, the US deployment of THAAD missiles right on China’s doorstep has much more profound implications for the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region than the Hague tribunal’s decision.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the news just came like a bolt out of the blue.

Short for Terminal High Altitude Air Defense, and often dubbed the “land-based Aegis”, the THAAD is a highly advanced anti-ballistic missile system operated by the US army and specially designed to intercept short-to-medium-range ballistic missiles.

Talks between Washington and Seoul over the deployment of THAAD began in 2013, when North Korea carried out its third nuclear test.

The talks continued on and off for three years, mainly due to Seoul’s hesitation and concern that it could risk angering Beijing.

It wasn’t until earlier this year when North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test that Seoul finally made up its mind to seal the deal with Washington over the THAAD deployment.

The deployment of THAAD in South Korea not only spells a direct threat to China’s national security, but also represents a major setback in Beijing’s continued efforts to secure the trust and friendship of Seoul.

At the end of the day, it is still the US, not China, that South Korea is counting on to ensure its safety.

Over the past few years Beijing has taken great pains to try to win over South Korea and play the arbitrator that both Seoul and Pyongyang could rely on to settle their differences.

Things had seemed to be going pretty well between Beijing and Seoul before the THAAD deal: bilateral trade saw remarkable progress, and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye even attended the military parade in Beijing last year celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, becoming the only pro-Western leader to be present at the event.

However, what South Korea was truly looking forward to was for Beijing to use its influence on Pyongyang to restrain it from continuing to extort economic and political benefits by means of brinkmanship.

Unfortunately, much to the disappointment of the South Korean leadership, China hasn’t lived up to their expectations, and they believe Beijing could have done substantially more to restrain Pyongyang.

Of course, Beijing has refrained from publicly taking sides on the Korean peninsula issue and giving its whole-hearted support to Seoul because maintaining a close yet low-profile relationship with Pyongyang can give it the necessary leverage to influence US policies.

In other words, for Beijing, Pyongyang is still too important to ditch.

It appears that by allowing the US to deploy the THAAD on its soil, Seoul is sending a strong message to Beijing that its decades-long military alliance with the US is still irreplaceable, and there is still a long way to go before the two countries can truly become faithful strategic partners.

However, the deployment of the THAAD is more of a diplomatic gesture than a truly effective deterrence.

The THAAD missiles might be able to shoot down North Korea’s ballistic missiles, but they can hardly protect Seoul if North Korea peppers it with Katyusha rockets or long-range artillery shells.

After all, the South Koren capital is just some 50 kilometers away from the 38th Parallel.

As far as the US is concerned, the deployment of the THAAD to South Korea signifies a major diplomatic triumph after its embarrassing failure to stop its allies from joining the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank spearheaded by China last year.

The THAAD deployment indicates that China can hardly win over South Korea solely by trade and business contracts.

Therefore, unless Beijing drastically reviews its policy towards Pyongyang and makes hard choices, a close and long-term strategic partnership between China and South Korea can only exist on paper.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 21.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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