By: Zhang Tuosheng

The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea has prompted strong opposition from China and has become a new and significant destabilizing factor on the Korean Peninsula and for the security of the region.

Managing and resolving the issue is not only important to improving and stabilizing the US-China relationship, but also to helping strengthen the joint efforts of the three countries to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

As North Korea’s nuclear program has developed rapidly in recent years, the concerns of both South Korea and the US about North Korean missile attack capabilities have also increased. This is the first reason for the US and South Korea to deploy the THAAD system. Although THAAD cannot defend the Seoul area, it could have some effect in defending against medium-range missile attacks from the north Korea, as well as in protecting US military bases in South Korea and the entry routes of US forces.

Second, the US is concerned about the development of ballistic missile capabilities in China, and could observe and monitor them by deploying THAAD. To be sure, the US has not said anything about this. For many years, the US and Japan have been developing a joint missile defense system in East Asia, and they hope that South Korea will join them.

China Says No

China adamantly opposes the deployment over three major concerns. First, that it could weaken China’s second-strike capability and destroy strategic stability between China and the US. Second, it worries that THAAD is the first step toward South Korea joining the US-Japan joint missile defense system. And third, it is concerned that the three countries – South Korea, the US, and Japan – could develop a military alliance among them via the deployment. That would seriously destroy the military balance in the region.

China’s concern about THAAD’s technological capabilities is primarily the X-ray AN/TPY-2 radar system it employs, which, if directed at China, would provide a surveillance system for missiles launched within a radius of 1,500 to 2,000 km, speeding up the forecasting time of the US National Missile Defense System (NMD) and significantly increase the missile intercept rate.

Tensions Heighten

On July 8, 2016, South Korea and the US officially and abruptly declared that they would complete deployment of THAAD by the end of 2017. This decision rapidly heightened tensions among China, South Korea and the US, but especially those between South Korea and China. For a long time, South Korean officials had told China that South Korea had a “3 NOs” (no request, no consultation, no decision) policy regarding THAAD: namely, no formal negotiations had taken place between South Korea and the US, no decision had been made, and no timetable for deployment existed.

These “3 NOs” misled China to some extent. The deployment timeline that South Korea announced prompted a larger complaint from China. It was suddenly announced a few days before the results of the international arbitration panel on the South China Sea was announced. It was seemingly intended to flank China from both sides.

In early 2017, meanwhile, the political situation in South Korea was chaotic, with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye by the National Assembly in December (she was eventually removed from office by the Supreme Court in March). There existed a high likelihood of a premature presidential election, with the opposition party likely to win. The then-opposition party argued in favor of suspending the deployment of THAAD and making a decision only after the deployment was ratified by the National Assembly.

Without considering the strong opposition from China and Russia in this situation, both South Korea and the US again acted quickly. They expeditiously deployed THAAD, making this issue a fait accompli before the new South Korean administration took power. This act by the two countries has made China more strongly opposed than ever to the deployment of THAAD.

S.Korea, US push ahead

As South Korea and the US pushed ahead with the early deployment, tensions grew even more, with relations between them retreating rather than developing. They worsened so much as to become a crisis of their own, although the political and trust crises did not evolve into a military one. Dialogue between South Korea and China has been cut off, confrontation in public opinion has occurred, economic and cultural relations have been severely damaged, and the strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries has faced challenges never seen before. It is clear that this situation is not beneficial to the overall long-term interests of both countries.

It is worth noting that the strategic cooperative partnership between South Korea and China – especially their economic, trade and cultural relations – developed rather steadily while the US promoted its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy and as the security friction between the US and China steadily increased. With South Korea deciding to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015, the conclusion of the South Korea-China free trade agreement (FTA), the decision by President Park Geun-hye to attend the military parade for China’s 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Second World War and the war against fascism, South Korea-China relations reached a new pinnacle.

Under these circumstances, the Chinese government was unable to comprehend or accept South Korea’s sudden change of direction, and the Chinese reacted fervently. As a result, not only did the deployment of THAAD have a huge impact on South Korea-China relations, it also caused even greater damage.

The Prospects and Impact of the Conflict

There are three prospects for the conflict between China and South Korea and the US on the THAAD issue. They will have different impacts on the US-China relationship and the South Korea-China relationship if they come to pass.

The first prospect is that South Korea stops THAAD deployment and eventually withdraws the missile system. Through this, the conflict would be thoroughly resolved. Friction between the US and China on the Korean Peninsula would be significantly eased, and the relationship between South Korea and China would return to a healthy developmental path. Mutual trust between China and South Korea and China and the US would be restored and strengthened. Progress in the process of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would be an important condition for realizing this vision.

The second prospect is that while South Korea and the US keep the deployment of THAAD at the current level, China takes necessary defensive countermeasures, and the conflicts of interest on both sides are relatively well managed. In this situation, the outbreak of a military crisis between the two sides could be avoided, and there is a possibility that mutual trust between the US and China as well as South Korea and China would recover to some extent. South Korea-China relations would also gradually improve and develop.

The third prospect is that South Korea and the US do not take into account China’s serious concerns at all and keep on with THAAD deployment, pushing China to inevitably react more strongly, leading to a sharp confrontation and heightened tensions. If this prospect actually were to come to pass, friction between the US and China would become even more serious, and South Korea-China relations would face a full-scale outbreak of tension.

What Should be Done?

The wisest and most proper choice for China, the US, and South Korea is surely the first. The second is also decent, where disagreement is effectively managed. The third, however, should be averted at all costs. So, what should the three parties do? I propose the following:

First, the three countries should unify their perceptions of the situation. Realization of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula should be prioritized, and they should avoid allowing THAAD to become a serious obstacle to achieving common goals. The major objective of South Korea and the US in deploying THAAD is for defense from North Korean missile attacks. However, if relations with China are gravely aggravated and efforts to realize Korean denuclearization founder, the means and the ends may be reversed.

The US will not listen even if China demands they immediately stop the deployment of THAAD and withdraw the missile system, not while North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are continuously growing. It is more so in a situation where persistent deepening of North Korea’s nuclear program is gradually more threatening to US national interests. Thinking about THAAD under the common objective of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula complies with the common interest of China, the US and South Korea.

Second, both the Chinese and South Korea-US sides should respect and understand the concerns that each has with regard to security.

Third, suspension of THAAD deployment is crucial. Recently, the administration of South Korea’s newly elected President Moon Jae-in decided to tentatively suspend the deployment of THAAD, and to follow the National Assembly ratification procedure regarding this issue. Such a decision should be welcomed, because it improves the situation and alleviates tense relations, as well as buys time to find a method to solve and manage the problem. The US should support that decision. The tentative suspension of the deployment should be seen as a vital measure to revive the North Korean nuclear dialogue, and to strengthen cooperation with China and Russia regarding denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

If a dialogue regarding the North Korean nuclear program takes place, the US and South Korea should consider the tentative suspension of THAAD deployment to be maintained over the long term.

Fourth, the three countries should put confidence-building measures (CBM) on the agenda in the near future. Before the problem is solved, the US and South Korea should approve and guarantee China regarding security. Here are a few examples: The US and South Korea could officially declare that THAAD is not targeting China, and could agree to build a sort of inspection mechanism regarding such a declaration.

Also, South Korea could proclaim that it will not join the regional missile defense system of the US and Japan, and instead develop an independent missile defense system. If the North Korean nuclear program is frozen, and the North Korean nuclear problem is solved, the US and South Korea should freeze THAAD deployment and eventually completely withdraw the missile system.

As a response to this, China could approve of certain aspects. For instance, measures of vigilance and counteraction meant to deal with THAAD deployment can be maintained within a moderate scope and necessary range. Also, as the US and South Korea temporarily suspend, freeze, and withdraw THAAD deployment, China could alleviate, tentatively suspend, and further completely lift counterattack plans and measures which targeted THAAD.

Fifth, the US could consider technological measures. For example, the THAAD radar system can be changed, locking the radar to deployment mode and the direction of the radar, where the latter is more important, and proactively providing China with technological materials and data regarding the THAAD system.

Such measures would not weaken the defensive power of the system towards a North Korean ballistic missile attack, but could actually decrease the potential threat to China, so that the concerns and suspicions of China could be alleviated.

Sixth, compared with the situation of China-US relations, South Korea-China relations are weak in crisis management, as was revealed through the THAAD issue. Crisis management between China and South Korea should be greatly enhanced, with clear principles, and bilateral crisis management mechanisms should be strengthened. Such efforts would play a crucial role for both sides.

Seventh, China, South Korea, and the US, especially the former two, should strengthen cooperation on restarting talks on the North Korean nuclear program, freezing the North Korean nuclear program, and on sudden crises on the Korean Peninsula and military conflict. With much effort, conflicts surrounding the deployment of THAAD can be effectively contained and limited.

Eighth, all of the aforementioned efforts cannot be separated from maintaining efficient communication and dialogue. By using existing communications mechanisms effectively, China and US-South Korea should engage in practical talks to decrease misunderstandings, manage disagreements, strengthen cooperation, and enhance mutual trust. The three countries should recognize that dialogue does not stop when tensions are heightened. Moreover, according to the change in circumstances, China, the US and South Korea should consider opening a trilateral security dialogue at an appropriate time.

The problem has already had a largely negative influence on China-US relations and China-South Korea relations, as well as the possible denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Because the three are major related parties in the THAAD deployment issue, with the US and China as the lead characters, and South Korea playing an important role, cooperation is crucial, and an efficient way to properly manage and solve this problem should be sought. Realization of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula should be a priority.

Also, with mutual respect, the major concerns of all parties regarding national security should be understood. An equilibrium point should be sought regarding security. Effectively managing concerns regarding THAAD is necessary to solve this difficult problem.

Zhang Tuosheng is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS). He is also a senior advisor for the Pangoal Institution. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation, which offered it to Asia Sentinel for publication.