Surrounded by much larger and more powerful states, the proverbial “shrimp among whales,” South Korea has always been a victim of its geographical position. Historically seen by Japan as a platform for entering the Asian mainland and by China as a buffer and vassal state, Korea (as a united kingdom) was the subject of countless invasions and great power machinations, none more devastating than the arrangement between the Soviet Union and the United States that resulted in its division in 1945.
Today, while South Korea has become an economic powerhouse and cemented its status as a respected middle power, its position in the midst of powerful rival states continues to exert pressure on the conduct of its defence and foreign policies. The current debate in South Korea over the planned U.S. deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) system offers a clear illustration of the ways in which the country’s geopolitical environment can complicate Seoul’s policy-making.
THAAD is a system developed by the United States to destroy ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, using a hit-to-kill approach (i.e. using only kinetic energy, without a warhead on the intercepting missile). The Obama administration and U.S. military strategists have been trying for years to convince Seoul to accept an American deployment of the THAAD system on South Korean territory in order to provide more effective defence against North Korea’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. However, China—and to a lesser extent, Russia—has expressed deep unease with the prospect of the weapon system being deployed on the Korean peninsula. Despite American reassurances, Beijing is concerned about the fact that the radar and interceptors forming the core of THAAD can be used to monitor China’s military facilities and destroy its own ballistic missiles. From Beijing’s perspective, Washington’s deployment plans are an integral part of the U.S. rebalance to Asia, which the majority of Chinese believe is meant to contain their country’s rise. So concerned are the Chinese about THAAD that they have reportedly offered increased economic opportunities for South Korea should it refuse to go along Washington’s plan.
Seoul’s response has been so far ambiguous. Although several prominent South Korean figures have called for the adoption of THAAD, pointing to the increasing missile threat from the North, President Park Geun-Hye and her cabinet have remained non-committal. However, it has expressed dissatisfaction over Chinese pressures, with a spokesman from the Ministry of National Defense declaring that “neighboring countries…should not attempt to wield leverage on our own national security policy.” While the Park administration has maintained strategic ambiguity, the government and the ruling party have held internal meetings on the issue. Certain signs show that Seoul may be leaning toward Washington; in early March, United States Forces in Korea (USFK) revealed that it had conducted a survey of five possible sites for the deployment of THAAD, which must have been approved by Korean authorities.
Are Chinese misgivings about THAAD warranted? Considering Beijing’s apprehensions over any move by the United States designed to reinforce its presence in the region, one can understand why the deployment of highly advanced defensive weapons so close to its territory is seen as a provocation and a possible threat. However, security and strategic imperatives in both Beijing and Washington dictate restraint, making the hypothetical deployment of THAAD in South Korea unlikely to pose a direct threat to China. While the Obama administration undoubtedly sees the weapons system as a way to increase its monitoring capabilities on and around the Korean peninsula, a use against Chinese missiles would be sure to spark a conflict that neither can afford, which is precisely why Beijing shouldn’t see it as a direct threat to its interest.
Regardless of the justifiability of Beijing’s concerns, its perceptions matter to Seoul. South Korea’s relationship with China has reached new heights since Park Geun-Hye’s election in 2012. With bilateral trade having increased approximately 35 times from 1992 to 2011, China is now South Korea’s most important trading partner and the destination for 26.1% of South Korean exports. The intensification of Seoul and Beijing’s bilateral ties has been buttressed in large part by the visible personal affinity between the Korean leader and the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The difficulty for Seoul lies in the need to adopt a seemingly equidistant approach toward the United States and China without compromising its alliance with Washington. While U.S.-South Korea are as strong as ever and are not likely to be surpassed anytime soon by China-South Korea relations, China’s growing economic clout and South Korea’s dependence on its neighbour’s market means that Seoul must carefully calibrate its foreign policy and be constantly aware of Beijing’s interests. This complicates any plan to engage in American-led security initiatives as it has to avoid undermining ties with its giant neighbour. Conversely, owing to the United States’ importance for South Korea’s defence, Seoul must continuously take into account its ally’s preferences, especially those that relate to inter-Korean relations and regional security.
With such pressures pulling it in different directions, Seoul is likely to try to delay a decision on THAAD. In the meantime, Washington faces an uphill battle trying to convince Beijing that THAAD is solely intended to counter the North Korean threat and not directed at China as well. Due to deep strategic mistrust, China tends to see all U.S. moves in the region through the prism of containment, which increases its perception of threat. Consequently, Washington will have to emphasize that the improving North Korean missile capabilities more than warrant the deployment of advanced interceptors on the Korean peninsula without posing any danger to China. In any case, as perceptions of threat play a large part in the formulation of foreign and defence policies, the Obama administration must tread carefully to avoid providing China with further justification to adopt a more assertive defence posture. Or perhaps Beijing will come to the realization that there are other issues that pose much greater danger to stability and security in the region.