A joke has been doing the rounds on China’s most popular messaging app Weibo . One person asks: “What worries you most – North Korea’s nuclear tests or South Korea’s deployment of [US missile defence system] THAAD?” The person answers: “I will worry about what the Communist Party tells me to worry about.”
Now that the first pieces of a US-built missile defense system designed to mitigate the threat of North Korean missiles arrived at the Osan Air Base in South Korea Monday night, according to the US military, the situation has turned serious. In response to the deployment, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong said that deployment of the system could destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship “in an instant.” The floor leader of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri party, Won Yoo-cheol, called Qiu’s remarks “rude,” saying that they “disregarded the sovereignty and the security of the Republic of Korea.”
The U.S. has deployed the first elements of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea Tuesday, one day after North Korea launched at least four ballistic missiles, three of which landed within 350 km of the Japanese mainland. The air defence system, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is designed to destroy short- and medium-ranged ballistic missiles at high altitudes in their “terminal” phase, as they descend.
It’s different from conventional defence missiles, which are designed to get close to a target and self-detonate to damage or deflect the threat. According to Lockheed Martin, THAAD is more like hitting a bullet with a bullet: the missiles rely on infrared seeker technology to locate and hit the target head on, completely destroying it, Lockheed says.
Like the Patriot missile system, THAAD uses missiles to shoot down incoming missiles. THAAD is a battery of 48 missiles on mobile erector launchers that uses powerful radar and infrared technology to intercept missiles within a range of 200 km, while they are in their descent phase.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan delivered China’s first official response to ongoing speculation about the prospective deployment of the U.S.-developed THAAD to South Korea, during the bilateral “cooperative” defense ministers meeting. General Han Min-koo, his South Korean counterpart, attempted to allay Chinese concerns. Nevertheless, Beijing exerted heavy pressure on Seoul to speak out against any such deployment, claiming that it would endanger their bilateral relationship and threaten regional peace and stability.
The main reason that is rattling the Chinese strategic thinkers is that of THAAD’s surveillance capabilities, which might be able to offer early tracking data to parts of the American ballistic missile defence system along with the possible consequences of the U.S. plans to deploy additional defensive THAAD to the Asia-Pacific region which erodes China’s ability to target the US in the event of war and what has particularly disturbed the Chinese military is the prospect of the U.S. linking individual sensors, interceptors, and communications assets dispersed all around the Asia-Pacific region into a comprehensive and integrated BMD system to interdict Chinese ballistic missiles in the boost and ascent phases of their trajectories. This would allow THAAD to penetrate and severely compromise China’s air defense zone. The Chinese senior political and military leadership, right up to President Xi Jinping, are worried that the deployment of THAAD and Aegis surface combatants in and around Japan and South Korea will prove a game changer. This is because China has numerous SRBM (Short range ballistic missile ) and MRBM (Medium range ballistic missile) which, in the event of conflict, could potentially annihilate U.S. forward bases; but which could be neutralized with a full deployment of THAAD and related systems.
But the real intent behind deployment of THAAD in South Korea is to protect the U.S. military force in South Korea from incoming North Korean SRBMs and MRBMs. China should also recognize that South Korea has no intention to be integrated, in the way that Japan is, into the U.S.-led theater BMD architecture which counters Chinese SRBMs and MRBMs targeting U.S. forward-deployed military forces in the region. Given China’s vast stockpile of ballistic missiles, which underpin its air defence capabilities, it is not surprising that the U.S. is incrementally building a collective BMD system in East Asia. With continuing technological advances, Chinese ballistic missiles are becoming ever more capable and sophisticated, so that with the possible deployment of THAAD to South Korea, and even with the ultimate regional integration of THAAD and related systems, the Chinese will still be able to retain a very adequate defensive posture.
While it is a fact that South Korea represents a significant strategic wedge, balanced between China’s declared vision of a New Asian Security and the U.S. implementation of its re-balancing to Asia. It is also true that South Korea hosts a sizeable amount of U.S. forward military forces on the Korean Peninsula, but these number fewer than 30,000. China should take up the issue of THAAD deployment in South Korea directly with the U.S., through the recently established bilateral military-to-military channels. It should refrain from coercing South Korea to directly oppose the missile system deployment, Chinese interests are better served by allowing South Korean strategic autonomy instead of trying to undermine it.