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Ballistic Missile Defense Systems: A Threat to China?

Since 2014, North Korea has ramped up its rhetoric and threats against the United States and her allies, while conducting an unprecedented amount of ballistic missile tests. These threats are concerning as North Korea has a significant amount of biological and chemical weapons in its arsenal, in addition to its nuclear materials. In July, North Korea heightened tensions with the United States after Kim Jong-un claimed that recent ballistic missile tests confirmed that North Korea could deliver a nuclear payload via an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would place the entire United States’ mainland within range. Concerns intensified as reports surfaced that North Korean military leaders were preparing to present Kim with plans to conduct four ballistic tests aimed at the waters surrounding Guam, a territory of the United States.

Such threats prompted a significant response from major powers throughout the world, starting in 2014, when President Obama decided to supplement ballistic missile defense systems (BMDs) by ordering cyberweapons to be made that could effectively prevent North Korean launches from occurring. Second, last month, the United Nations Security Council unanimously decided to increase sanctions against North Korea. Third, as a result of the increasing frequency of ICBM tests, President Trump has been continuously pressuring China to influence and convince North Korea to halt such tests and suspend their nuclear program. Lastly, such ICBM tests caused the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, to allow the United States to install the remaining four batteries for its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in South Korea, despite the fact that Moon originally halted its deployment pending a full review of the system and environmental tests upon his assumption of the presidency in May.

China is most concerned with South Korea’s response to North Korea’s testing of ICBMs and threats, as they believe that the deployment of THAAD is a direct threat to their national security. One reason China believes that their national security is at risk is because the THAAD system that was recently fully deployed in South Korea is equipped with an Army/Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance system (AN/TPY-2-X). China contends that this radar system could effectively track Chinese ICBMs and military equipment, which thus would serve as a deterrent to the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal. Yet, these claims are unfounded for several reasons. First, to quell Chinese concerns regarding the radar system equipped with THAAD, the United States government offered to brief Chinese officials several times about the specifications of the radar system, but Chinese officials declined. This demonstrates that China’s concerns with the THAAD system deployed in South Korea may not genuinely be due to its radar system. Second, THAAD is solely deployed in South Korea to defend South Koreans from a North Korean ballistic missile attack. Third, unless China aimed its missiles at South Korea, the THAAD system deployed in South Korea would not be able to shoot down missiles fired from China. Thus, the advantage South Korea would gain in being able to track China’s missiles because of the deployment of THAAD would be marginal at best, according to Mike Elleman, a missile-defense expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Fourth, in order to configure the radar system to be programmed in “look mode,” it would take a five hour software update to occur, which would leave THAAD inoperable. Therefore, such actions are highly unlikely to take place as it would leave South Korea and American troops stationed in the region highly vulnerable to a North Korean attack. Lastly, China feels that the deployment of THAAD in South Korea would threaten their national security because South Korea or the United States would be offered the opportunity to launch a preemptive strike that could neutralize and destroy China’s nuclear weapon program. This is highly unlikely to occur as China is one of the United States’ largest trading partners and the economic impacts of conducting a preemptive strike would be catastrophic.

China’s second concern regarding THAAD is that it would significantly alter the balance of power in the region, thus threatening the regional security of the Asia-Pacific. Further, China asserts that the THAAD system exceeds the defensive needs of South Korea, and is instead being utilized by the United States to commence its efforts to build a network of BMD systems in the region that would be stationed in Japan and the Philippines. Lastly, China opposes such BMD systems from being implemented in the region, as they believe that it would lead to an arms race between the United States and her allies and China and its allies. As China views American installments of BMD systems in South Korea as a threat to their national security, China would in turn take steps to increase the size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal. An arms race, in their opinion, would inevitably destabilize the region and lead to increased tensions on the Korean peninsula. Yet, tensions are only high on the peninsula because of the threats North Korea has made against the United States and her allies.

In an attempt to convince South Korea to abandon further implementations and installments of BMD systems and THAAD, China has launched a campaign based on economic and political intimidation in order to promote their national security and assert its regional dominance. The state-controlled Chinese news agency, Xihau, urged Chinese consumers to boycott all South Korean goods and services in March. This development was particularly concerning for South Korea, as China is South Korea’s largest market for its exports. Additionally, Chinese teenagers are avid consumers of South Korean culture and media, including South Korean television shows and K-pop music videos, both of which have been banned in China. While these economic repercussions may have decreased support for the deployment of THAAD systems in South Korea in the business community, which was to be expected, the South Korean government has remained firm in its commitment to the United States to implement such BMD systems. Simply, the North Korean threat places South Korea’s national security in grave danger. Politically, Chinese officials have also attempted to pressure South Korea. China has banned Chinese tourists from travelling to South Korea and has empowered their hackers, beginning in April, to target institutions involved in the decision to deploy an American THAAD system in South Korea.

Yet, despite all the reasons China has provided for objecting to the deployment of THAAD systems in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders have only provided one solution to de-escalate tensions in the region. Their plan, which is also sponsored by Russia, would require North Korea to suspend its nuclear missile program, and the United States and South Korea to cease conducting large-scale military exercises. In turn, to satisfy North Korea, China would extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea. Yet, this solution is highly unlikely to be successful for several reasons. First, North Korea will not freeze its nuclear weapons program, as it is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal to become a nuclear power to gain leverage over the West and ensure his regime’s survival. Second, the plan cosponsored by Russia and China did not provide any details on how to monitor and confirm that North Korea was fulfilling its end of the deal. Third, the United States will not accept North Korea having nuclear materials and weapons in its possession without the ability to adequately defend itself, nor will they accept North Korea being allowed to have nuclear weapons in the first place. Fourth, the United States is highly unlikely to abandon the concerns of its allies, including Japan and South Korea, to satisfy the concerns of the Chinese and the Russians. Lastly, the United States would not limit their military presence and capabilities in the region, when Russia and China would not be restricted at all under this deal.

Are there ways for China to de-escalate the tensions on the Korean peninsula? Absolutely. But the solution they have posed is not feasible. Yet, China can effectively maintain regional security and de-escalate tensions between Russia, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States by politically and economically leveraging North Korea to abandon its nuclear missile program. Is it likely that China will pressure one of their only partners and friends in the region? Probably not. Until China begins to do so, though, tensions on the Korean peninsula will continue to escalate.

Photo credit: Ben Listerman, Missile Defense Agency

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