Business with Beijing can’t make Seoul feel safe, but THAAD can

August 01, 2016 15:25
South Korea's semi-official Arirang TV reports on the deployment of THAAD. The US-developed system can shoot down missiles with 100 percent success rate. Photo: Arirang TV

All the developments following the international tribunal's ruling in the Hague that disavowed Beijing’s “historical right” to disputed waters and islands in the South China Sea have actually affirmed Beijing’s accusation that Washington is behind all this.

As tensions rise in the region, US Vice President Joe Biden has kept himself busy with a high-profile trip to the Asia-Pacific.

After a meeting with Japanese and Korean deputy foreign ministers during a brief layover in Hawaii, he visited Australia and New Zealand and delivered in Sydney a rare, if combative, speech with some not-too-subtle hints that the United States won’t sit idly by over the territorial rows in the South China Sea.

The US “pivot to Asia” and freedom of navigation patrols are no mere posturing or empty talk.

The Chinese people's rabid indignation and Beijing’s defiance in the wake of the verdict may have overshadowed another key development which could have more serious implications: Seoul, after three years of hemming and hawing, has agreed to open its door for Washington’s anti-ballistic missile, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery or THAAD.

Washington had earlier deployed four such systems on its own soil and two X-Band radars in Japan, but South Korea had long been the missing piece.

It has relentlessly tried to get THAAD into South Korea, with actual negotiations starting shortly after President Park Geun-hye was sworn into office in 2013.

Washington’s hit-to-kill interceptors to shield the nation from Pyongyang’s missiles, amid the latter’s sabre-rattling and ammunition building, is the kind of security guarantee Park had long wanted but had hesitated to acquire because she didn't want to offend Beijing.

Beijing and Moscow unequivocally tried to dissuade Seoul in a joint statement last month, warning that the THAAD will “jeopardize neighboring countries’ legitimate security interests and that of the entire region”.

Park’s obstinacy with the final decision to install the US system, which can blast incoming missiles out of the sky with 100 percent success rate, must be exasperating to Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平).

It’s an act of betrayal from a nation who has pocketed substantial economic benefits from China, as the logic of Chinese cadres goes.

It is also humiliating to Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, whose friendly reminders Park has chosen to rebuff.

For sure Beijing has many retaliatory means at its disposal. Its bellicose Global Times has offered some hints: it suggests sanctioning firms and businessmen “connected with THAAD”, and before long business owners and executives will lobby Seoul against the deployment, which is expected to be completed by the year's end.

But a more practical and tried and tested way is to let its patriotic importers and consumers do their part.

JAC Motors, an Anhui-based state-owned automobile manufacturer, was swift to announce that it has stopped importing Samsung-made traction batteries for its e-cars after rumors started flying that Beijing may stop subsidizing domestic importers of Korean-made auto parts.

The irate masses, ideologically remolded, have also been doing their part by resisting anything from their nation’s foes, be it mangoes from the Philippines, iPhones, car models, KFC, and McDonald’s from the US and even soap dramas from South Korea following the THAAD deployment.

Around a third of South Korea’s exports flowed to China last year and 45 percent of overseas visitors to the nation are from China, with their spending power shoring up the profitability of retailers and travel-related firms.

So why would Park bring in the THAAD after three years of deliberation, when such a decision could undermine the nation's economic ties with Beijing?

Seoul, just like its Southeast Asian neighbors, now feels its hands are being tied because of its increased political and economic dealings with Beijing, which makes use of trade and economic ties to serve a political agenda and whose people are ready to do their part by boycotting products from a “deceitful” ally.

And precisely because of that, Seoul and other nations in similar circumstances have come under Washington’s umbrella.

Taiwan and Hong Kong have also laid bare Beijing’s coercive ways.

Beijing has cut its quota for individual and group tours to Taiwan to suppress the island after the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen took office in May.

In the case of Hong Kong, diplomats from nations that deal with China are closely observing how Beijing has been bullying the territory throughout these years.

So has Beiing gained anything internationally from its efforts to tame Hong Kong and Taiwan?

What it has done only feeds into Washington’s "pivot to Asia" strategy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 26.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal