22 March 2019
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi strongly criticized South Korea’s THAAD decision. Photo: CNSA, flickr/Mark Holloway
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi strongly criticized South Korea’s THAAD decision. Photo: CNSA, flickr/Mark Holloway

Big power diplomacy behind THAAD Offensive

Ever since South Korea approved the United States’ plan to deploy the THAAD missile system on its soil, relations between Beijing and Seoul have suddenly hit rock bottom.

For China, the THAAD system is far more than just an anti-ballistic missile entity of a defensive nature.

Beijing leaders see it as an offensive spying system that can look deep into its territory, thereby seriously threatening China’s national security.

Besides, Seoul’s decision to allow the deployment of the THAAD is also regarded by Beijing as an unfriendly or even hostile gesture that, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has already seriously undermined the foundation of mutual trust between the two countries.

Although South Korea has reiterated on numerous occasions that the THAAD system is directed at North Korea rather than China, and that it has no intention whatsoever to join the US regional anti-ballistic missile initiative, which Beijing believes is a plot to contain China, its reassurance seems to have failed to allay Beijing’s suspicions.

Amid their deteriorating bilateral relations, there have been calls among the Chinese public for imposing economic sanctions on South Korea and banning South Korean pop stars from performing in China.

So far, however, the Chinese government has yet to spell out its stand on whether to impose economic sanctions on South Korea.

I believe Beijing is pretty unlikely to do so, not only because it will have very little effect on the outcome as far as the THAAD deployment is concerned, but also because it might just backfire and further alienate South Korea and reinforce the notion preached by “Sinoskeptics” in Seoul that China is not a reliable ally.

So, in a nutshell, China’s strong rhetoric against the THAAD deployment is nothing more than a publicity stunt to flex its diplomatic muscles on the international scene and to appease nationalist fanatics at home.

China and South Korea might undergo a brief period of “cold war” over the THAAD deployment, but it is unlikely that it will fundamentally affect the strategic framework in East Asia, especially because both of them are facing imminent nuclear threats from North Korea.

(Editor’s note: the phrase “THAAD Offensive” is borrowed from the term “Tet Offensive”, a major military campaign mounted by North Vietnam against the south in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.)

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 17.

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[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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