What are the Chinese Telling Us by Bullying South Korea so Much over Missile Defense?


This is a local re-post of an essay wrote for The National Interest about 10 days ago. Basically, I’m curious why the Chinese are making such a huge deal out of THAAD missile defense. They’ve been bullying South Korea relentlessly for a year or so now over this. But THAAD doesn’t even impact them, as everyone knows now. That graphic over, from the Heritage Foundation, nicely illustrates that.

So the big question is why. Why is China making a huge deal of something where it’s so obviously on the wrong side of the debate? (Everyone can see North Korea’s nuclear missile program and South Korea’s obvious need for a ‘roof.’) Why does China think something this minor – THAAD has no impact on Chinese strategic forces – is worth wrecking a decent relationship with South Korea, one of the few regional states that is not that scared of China’s rise? Is this coercive diplomacy to prove Chinese regional hegemony, with South Korea being the first target to be bullied into knuckling under? Is Vietnam next? Or does China really care about North Korea so much that it wants NK to be able to blackmail South Korea with nuclear missiles?

I can’t believe that latter explanation is right. To me, this is China feeling its oats. It’s rising; no longer feels it has to keep its head down per Deng’s early advice. Now it’s number 2 in the world, on the way to being the world’s largest economy. So it’s going throw its weight around, and the states closest to it will feel the hammer of its prestige-seeking fall first.

The full essay follows the jump:


In 2016, the South Korean government agreed to the 2017 installation of a US missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). The objective arguments for South Korean missile defense are pretty irrefutable at this point. North Korea’s missile program is well-known. Pyongyang conducted dozens of tests just last year and even talks up intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Its nuclear weapons capabilities, after five tests in ten years, are well-established also. And the regime’s harsh, extreme rhetoric about South Korea – turning Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’ – is notorious. If any state in the world needs missile-defense, it is South Korea.

The Chinese know all this. The Chinese also know that THAAD is not particularly effective against Chinese strategic forces. The South Korean THAAD radar will be configured around North Korea, not China, and cannot simply be ‘turned left;’ the technology and software package is more complicated than that. The US already has remote-sensing for Chinese strategic launches in any case, so THAAD’s X-band radar adds nothing new. THAAD is also intended for use against a few incoming missiles (in their ‘terminal’ phase, per the name of the system), not hundreds of missiles in the lift-off or boost stage, as would be the case were the Chinese to launch against the United States. US and South Korean officials have explained this to the Chinese repeatedly, and the media discussion of this has been quite extensive. It is hard to imagine that the Chinese are still unclear about the technical issues around THAAD.

Politically, South Korea has tried for years to work with China on the underlying issue – North Korea’s missilization – to no avail. South Korean President Park Geun Hye launched a three-year charm offensive to flatter the Chinese into a tougher line on North Korea. South Korea has consistently reached out to China to work on North Korea sanctions at the United Nations. Seoul has said THAAD is only a stop-gap measure until its own Korean Air and Missile Defense is completed. It is very obvious that South Korea wants some kind of deal with China on North Korea. The THAAD decision came only after years of prevarication during which Seoul would likely have made major concessions for serious Chinese action on the North.

Yet the Chinese will not budge on THAAD, nor will they seriously enforce the sanctions. They warned South Korea for years not to accept THAAD and in the last year, have threatened various punishments. Stephen Haggard conveniently brings together the many, often quite petty ways, the Chinese have struck back. Beijing is essentially demanding that South Korea remain defenseless – ‘roof-less’ – in the face of a spiraling nuclear missile threat on its doorstep. That is an astonishing ultimatum – to effectively surrender South Korean national security over an existential threat to demands of a foreign power. That China would make such a demand regarding an issue where the developments all broadly support the South Korean position – the North Korean missile threat is blatantly obvious, as is the South Korea’s thin defense – shows all the more chutzpah on Beijing’s part. The Chinese ‘argument’ against THAAD is so preposterous, that it is hard to read its demands against Seoul as anything but bullying power politics.

The question then is why – what is China’s objectively bizarre resistance to something so obvious telling us? For years, China vigorously promoted the idea that its rise was different from that of previous great powers. Its ‘peaceful rise’ would open the possibility of a ‘new type of major power relationship’ to promote a ‘harmonious world.’ All would benefit from China’s growth, as the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative tied Asia together. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank would help developing states. Chinese cultural production even got in on the act. But in its maritime periphery, specifically, the South and East China Seas, China is acting, however quietly and obliquely, like a fairly typical aggrieved rising power. Its actions on Senkaku, the Paracels, Scarborough Shoal, North Korea, and now THAAD all suggest that it expects regional states to bend to its demands conveniently packaged as uncontestable and expanding ‘core interests.’

This looks an awful lot like a sphere of influence by stealth. China has learned the cost of unnecessary belligerence. It is avoiding the forthright aggressiveness of Imperial Germany or the Soviet Union, which both provoked large counter-coalitions to their rise. Instead, it pursues a salami slicing strategy of pushing here and there to see what happens. This escalating coercive diplomacy worked reasonably well with the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte last year gave up and bandwagoned with China to appease it. And in South Korea, this year’s leftist presidential candidates are hinting that they will roll-back the THAAD deployment. Seoul conservatives will read this as ‘kow-towing’ to Beijing, but economic anxiety is rising given South Korea’s asymmetric economic interdependence with China.

The next questions then are: will China try this bullying, using asymmetric economics and oblique threats as a lever, again elsewhere (Vietnam would be my guess)? And will Japan and the US, the only regional powers with a serious ability to push-back, eventually hit some kind of threshold and respond?

2 thoughts on “What are the Chinese Telling Us by Bullying South Korea so Much over Missile Defense?

  1. China, in short, has dug itself into a hole from which it cannot climb out. Most diplomats would agree that if you have dug yourself into a foreign relations hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. North Korea, being completely insane is a perfect example of a country ignoring this basic premise (assassination in Malaysia, and how it has subsequently been handled by NK, as an example). But China…… to be frank, we expected more from China. Mature, wise, on a planned path, a 20 year plan, a 100 year plan, meticulous big picture plans for the future is how China once could have been viewed.

    Now they’ve made enemies with nearly every other country in South/East/Southeast Asia by attempting to exercise ridiculous claims to islands off the coastlines of various countries, nowhere near the Chinese mainland and by refusing to back down from these ludicrous claims, China has lost a ton of credibility. China won’t back down from the THAAD/Islands claims, etc because they can’t. They have stirred up a kind of hyper-nationalism fervor within China using their crooked state run media to the point where re-negging on these international issues is actually impossible. It would cause a massive loss of face. The only way to resolve the China THAAD idiocy is to craft a way for China to back out without causing a massive loss of face for the Chinese government.


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