With the dispute over the deployment of the US anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea continuing to escalate, some observers are worried that the saga might lead to an all-out military standoff in Northeast Asia like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and possibly push the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
However, I believe such concerns are hardly warranted, nor do I think one should draw an easy parallel between the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) dispute and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis took place against a completely different international backdrop and was of much more immense proportions.
It happened at the height of the Cold War when the two superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union, were deeply hostile to each other and were ready to engage in a nuclear war, with both sides being on the strategic offensive at the same time.
Worse still, at that time the US and the Soviet Union were almost entirely cut off from each other in terms of diplomatic, trade and civilian relations.
There was a complete lack of channels for dialogue between Washington and Moscow by the time the crisis broke out.
As a result, the White House and the Kremlin were unable to find out the real strategic intentions and the red line of each other, thereby giving rise to misjudgement, misinterpretation and overreaction on both sides.
However, things are completely different with the US and China today.
Washington and Beijing are not in a state of cold war like the US and the Soviet Union were back then, even though they both regard each other as a potential threat.
Their ICBMs might be pointed at each other but the intensity and proportions of their confrontation just can’t compare with the touch-and-go situation between Washington and Moscow back in 1962.
Besides, as the two largest economies in the world and the biggest trading partner to each other, Washington and Beijing have a lot of official and civilian channels through which they can communicate and find out each other’s real intentions, thereby reducing the chances of overreaction and misjudgement to the minimum.
On the other hand, unlike in 1962 when the US-Cuban relationship was in a state of total breakup, China and South Korea have close diplomatic and economic ties, which can, to a considerable extent, prevent the THAAD dispute from spinning out of control.
Some said the fact that the THAAD radar system can spy on China’s nuclear missile facilities and undermine its nuclear deterrent against the US might prompt Beijing to launch a pre-emptive strike against the THAAD units stationed in South Korea in order to preserve its own nuclear second strike capability.
Again, I think such a scenario is extremely unlikely as it would amount to declaring war on the US and South Korea, and I don’t think our Beijing leaders would be crazy enough to do that at this point.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 22
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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