Chinese Government Standing Mute
South Korea is feeling the heat, not only from the heat waves of summer but also from the heated debates surrounding President Park Geun-hye’s July 8 announcement of the decision to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). The nation has been polarized between those saying “nay” and “aye.” The public divide has also been fueled by China’s persistent open opposition that started three years ago when the United States began to spread the idea of deployment. The South Korean public became more polarized after Chinese analysts and pundits followed the announcement with calls for severe sanctions including boycotts of South Korean products and even pre-emptive surgical strikes on THAAD bases.
To date, however, Chinese Communist Party leaders and Chinese government have all remained silent, except for some diplomatic rhetoric of their disappointment and the reiteration of their posture of opposition from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China’s silence may well be a reflection of uncertainties on its part as to what punitive measures it actually can take and for how long. In other words, Beijing may also be experiencing difficulties making its final decision simply because it cannot be certain of what its punitive actions may lead to in the short-term, let alone the long-term. What can South Korea do to cool down the heat from the THAAD controversy and to better garner China’s understanding, if not concurrence?
The Cause of Polarization: Why So Politicized?
Three lingering questions must be answered in order to understand the hype going on inside and outside South Korea regarding the THAAD deployment question. Why has it become such a big deal in both South Korea and China? Why has it been so politicized? And why are South Koreans so polarized over the issue? The answer is simple: The decision to deploy THAAD was reached without having undergone proper procedures both domestically and externally. The root cause of the problem is procedural.
Domestically speaking, as it was for a foreign audience, the July 8 announcement of the decision on the deployment of THAAD came as a mighty surprise. The South Korean public knew there were discussions going on with the United States; what caught them by surprise was the seemingly rushed way the announcement was abruptly delivered.
Seldom in the history of the South Korea-US alliance was the deployment of weapons and weapon systems at US military bases ever made public. US military bases are by law out of South Korea’s jurisdiction, and they enjoy diplomatic immunity. The intent of the public announcement of the THAAD decision was seriously questioned. On the question of the hasty announcement of the decision, to date neither government has seemed willing to sate our curiosity. Only a wide variety of speculation exists. Speculation attributes the decision to a couple of factors. One is North Korea’s successful test of the Musudan intermediate-range missile (BM-25) on June 23. The other is President Park’s unhappiness with Chinese President Xi Jinping for not answering her call after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test last January, despite his promise last September to work closely together against future tests.
After President Park decided on the deployment of THAAD, her government proceeded to search for a hosting site. While there was a speculated list of candidate sites, the announced area was not in this list, and the residents of the area were totally taken off guard. They immediately and vehemently opposed the decision for environment and health reasons, as the radar used by THAAD allegedly generates dangerous radiation. The protests still continue.
President Park has already conveyed her willingness to discuss the relocation of the THAAD hosting site within the designated area.
On the diplomatic front, South Korea immediately had to confront angry criticism from China. Beijing is well aware of the need for deployment. It also has a clear understanding of the South Korean public’s sense of insecurity with the mounting nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. This is why Beijing also desires a peaceful solution of North Korea’s nuclear and related issues as soon as possible. Apart from its statement of THAAD’s potential threat to its national security, China’s anger was prompted more by the way South Korea arrived at its final decision. Seoul obviously did not discuss or consult the matter with Beijing, despite its long-held explicit posture in the past three years.
Washington and Seoul would counter that Beijing had been debriefed on numerous occasions at the working level and whenever such opportunities were available. However, Beijing feels it never got the answers to its questions. What it wants to hear are the strategic and geopolitical implications. From the strategic perspective, Beijing isn’t interested in the US and South Korea’s assurances over THAAD’s radar not reaching its shores, but rather the possible alternatives to deployment, including possible time limits or postponement. From the geopolitical perspective, Beijing’s anxiety is illuminated by the prospect of THAAD being a stepping stone towards a trilateral alliance between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. China easily perceives the deployment of THAAD as the start of the construction of this trilateral alliance. What reinforces Chinese anxiety is the likelihood that THAAD will be permanently deployed in South Korea.
In sum, the controversies surrounding THAAD are all procedural problems. Had the South Korean and American military followed the traditional way of not disclosing the decision to the public; had the South Korean government and President Park consulted with the public better; had there been a prior discussion and had the proper institutional process been followed before the decision on the hosting site was made; and had there been better communication with China, we could all have had a cooler summer by now.
Some Strategic Options for Solution
When it feels too late, as the saying goes, it’s never too late. President Park and the South Korean government have some viable options to patch up their domestic challenges and amend the strained relationship with China. Some changes will be required on their posture for sure. They could come as early as August 15 when President Park delivers an annual national address on the nation’s Liberation Day. She can utilize the occasion to indicate her willingness to have better communication with her constituencies and neighboring states including China. If not, there is one more chance which she can make use of. This is the upcoming G-20 Summit meeting in Hangzhou, China on September 3. If she cannot seize the opportunity, one last chance this year will be the APEC leaders meeting in November in Peru, where a meeting with President Xi is possible.
Domestically, President Park has already conveyed her willingness to discuss the relocation of the THAAD hosting site within the designated area, opening up a possibility for a review and study of all alleged problems pertaining to public safety and environmental issues. On the diplomatic front, she can hold talks with President Xi not to reiterate the need for THAAD deployment but to make a political bargain. As of today, it does not seem to be in Chinese interests to impose economic sanctions on South Korea for reasons of their countries’ economic interdependence.
However, President Park may have some strategically viable cards in hand. They include the postponement of deployment; offering consideration to China’s desired specifications in the system as it is now being discussed with the US; or making the stationing of THAAD temporary and not permanent. The last option is feasible given the fact that South Korea is scheduled to complete its own “kill chain” missile defense system by 2023 through three developmental stages. Since it is a mobile system, the withdrawal of THAAD will be possible.