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China and South Korea square off over missile defense

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 8/14/2022 Daniel DePetris
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A bilateral meeting between the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers isn’t normally a newsworthy event. But when South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin flew to Beijing this week to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for a five-hour session, the two men walked away without resolving an issue that has confounded bilateral relations for years: Seoul’s deployment of the U.S.-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Air Defense System, or THAAD.

The drama stretches back to 2016, when then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye authorized a THAAD deployment to increase Seoul’s self-defense capacity against North Korea’s growing arsenal of short and medium-range ballistic missiles. The deployment and installation of the missile battery were viewed at the time as a relatively affordable way to respond to Pyongyang’s incessant missile launches — and as a defensive system, it was a more restrained alternative than doubling down on South Korea’s own offensive missile capability.

China, however, has strongly lobbied the South Korean government to reverse the decision.

As China expert Michael Swaine wrote, Beijing had a totally different interpretation of what THAAD represented. According to Swaine’s paper, the Chinese political elite considered South Korea’s acceptance of the U.S. anti-missile system as evidence that Seoul was "clearly moving away from Beijing and toward an acceptance of U.S. and Japanese containment efforts." It was, in other words, just the latest step by Washington to enlist its neighbors into an anti-China coalition.

When China couldn’t persuade the Moon administration to prevent the THAAD deployment, it tried to cause pain to the South Korean economy, both as a response to Seoul rejecting China’s requests and as an attempt to drive Moon to the bargaining table over the issue. Chinese tourism to South Korea plummeted, South Korean-owned retailers operating on Chinese soil were harassed by Chinese government regulations, and K-pop concerts set to take place in China were canceled. The restrictions reportedly cost South Korea as much as $7.5 billion. While South Korea kept the THAAD, President Moon ended up giving Beijing three promises in exchange for the resumption of normal relations: 1) South Korea wouldn’t deploy any more THAAD systems in the future, 2) wouldn’t participate in a U.S. missile defense network, and 3) wouldn’t strike a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan.

Nearly five years after those arrangements were made, however, the THAAD issue continues to be a long-standing irritant. China continues to insist the U.S. anti-missile battery is a threat to its national security interests, can peer into Chinese territory, and thus weakens Beijing’s own missile deterrent. The Chinese Foreign Ministry wants the current South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, to implement the agreements made by his predecessor.

The South Koreans are just as insistent that China doesn’t have the right to dictate what weapons Seoul operates for the purposes of self-defense. Yoon is arguing that Moon’s concessions to China were never locked down in a formal agreement and therefore aren’t binding. Any promises Moon may have made, in other words, were rendered irrelevant as soon as he vacated office in the spring.

How this seemingly irreconcilable dispute will play out is difficult to predict. As it stands, China and South Korea are equally committed to their positions. In the event South Korea authorized another THAAD battery (it should be noted that Yoon flirted with the possibility during his campaign), Beijing would likely run the same play as it did back in 2017, when it slapped economic and cultural sanctions on select South Korean industries. Yet any punitive measures China could impose risks pushing a conservative South Korean government further into Washington’s arms, a development President Xi Jinping would rather avoid.

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.


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Tags: Opinion, Beltway Confidential, Blog Contributors, South Korea, China

Original Author: Daniel DePetris

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